The Czech writer Milan Kundera in his collection of critical essays The Art of the Novel (1988) offers a definition of the novel as “a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters,” while providing “my personal conception of the European novel.” In Kundera’s analysis, European novelists, beginning with Cervantes, “discovered the various dimensions of existence”: in the nature of adventure (Cervantes), “what happens inside” (Richardson), man’s rootedness in history (Balzac), the terra previously incognita of the everyday (Flaubert), the impact of the irrational on human behavior (Tolstoy), the force of the present and past (Joyce and Proust, respectively), and the role of ancient myth plays in shaping present action (Mann). Under pressure of the Great War, which “unbalanced forever an enfeebled Europe,” writers— particularly Kafka, Hašek, Musil, and Broch, whom Kundera calls “the pleiad of great Central European novelists”—“saw, felt, grasped the terminal paradoxes of the Modern Era.” According to Kundera, all existential categories suddenly changed their meaning:
What is adventure if a K’s freedom of action is completely illusory? What is future if the intellectuals of The Man without Qualities have not the slightest inkling of the war that will sweep their lives away the next day? What is crime if Broch’s Huguenau not only does not regret but actually forgets the murder he has committed? And if the only great comic novel of the period, Hašek’s Schweik, uses war as its setting, then what has happened to the comic? Where is the difference between public and private if K., even in bed with a woman, is never without the two emissaries of the Castle? And in that case, what is solitude? A burden, a misery, a curse, as some would have us believe, or on the contrary a supremely precious value in the process of being crushed by the ubiquitous collectivity?
With these questions still unanswered, Kundera rejects the notion that the novel has “already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms” and identifies the novel’s four continuing appeals “to which I am especially responsive”: the appeal of play, which originated in the works of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot, providing an alternative novel tradition contrary to the “imperative of verisimilitude”; the appeal of dream, in which the novel can break through that imperative; the appeal of thought, in which “all the means—rational, and irrational, narrative, and contemplative—that could illuminate man’s being” might be employed; and the appeal of time, beyond the “Proustian problem of personal memory to the enigma of collective time, the time of Europe, Europe looking back on its own past, weighing up its history like an old man seeing his whole life in a single moment.” All of these appeals emanate from Kundera’s best-known work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a radical repossession of the intellectual and emotional possibilities of the novel that challenges the “imperative of verisimilitude,” offering an alternative sense of thematic and structural possibilities conforming to what Kundera would later call the “novel as a debate.” In Kundera’s handling of the novel’s conventions, ideas dominate over plot and psychology, orchestrated as in music through counterpoint and variation. Narrative chronology and coherence are violated while Kundera insists on calling attention to the compositional process itself and the continual struggle to reflect life by language.
Kundera is uniquely positioned to respond to the impact of modern history on existence and consciousness. He was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1929, a decade after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire after World War I and a decade before the Nazi takeover signaling the beginning of World War II. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a prominent musicologist and pianist who taught him to play and helped his son to discover in music what Kundera would later call his first great revelation of art. Music would remain a fascination even as he abandoned it as a prospective vocation during his teenage years. In secondary school during the Nazi occupation, Kundera was forced to learn German, but as a protest secretly studied Russian. As a student, Kundera also began translating and writing poetry. In 1945, Czechs greeted the Red Army as liberators, and, like many idealistic, reform-minded young Czechs, Kundera enthusiastically joined the Communist Party in 1947. “Communism enthralled me,” Kundera has remarked, “in much the way Stravinsky, Picasso and Surrealism had. It promised a great, miraculous metamorphosis, a totally new and different world.” Kundera would eventually discover that as Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the Soviet bloc, the state had little patience for the individualism, freedom, and nonconformity that he demanded as an avant-garde writer. Studying film at the Prague Film and Music School, Kundera would be expelled from it and the party for a lack of seriousness and “hostile thoughts.” Working as a manual laborer and occasional jazz musician during the 1950s, Kundera published his first book of poetry (Man, the Vast Garden) in 1953 and a second (The Last May) in 1955 before being reinstated by the Communist Party and returning to his former school as a member of the faculty teaching world literature. After a third volume of poetry (Monologues) in 1957, Kundera abandoned poetry for drama, fiction, and literary theory. During the 1960s, his first play (The Owners of the Keys), about young idealistic students in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation, was performed in 14 countries, including the United States and Britain. He published three volumes of short stories, collectively titled Laughable Loves. His first novel, The Joke (1967), drew on his own expulsion experience, showing its protagonist’s life transformed when authorities react to his playful parody of Marxist slogans. During the Prague Spring of 1968, the novel, which his publisher initially considered “diametrically opposed to the official ideology,” became an enormous popular success. With the Russian invasion and clampdown on dissent later that year, Kundera was expelled from the party again and released from his teaching position. His books were banned, and he lost the ability to publish. In 1975, however, Kundera was permitted to travel outside Czechoslovakia to accept a teaching position at France’s University of Rennes. In 1979, Kundera published The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a novel that the critic John Leonard has described as “part fairy tale, part literary criticism, part political tract, part musicology and part autobiography.” The Czechoslovak government responded by revoking his citizenship. In 1980, Kundera accepted a professorship at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, where he has lived ever since. In 1985, Kundera insisted, “My stay in France is final, and therefore I am not an émigré. France is my only real homeland now. Nor do I feel uprooted. For a thousand years Czechoslovakia was part of the West. Today, it is part of the empire to the east. I would feel a great deal more uprooted in Prague than in Paris.” Dislocated by history and ideology, Kundera has resisted defining himself as a dissident and his work as predominantly political. Instead, he has summarized his past and its impact by saying, “The events we have lived through in the last thirty years were no milk and honey, but they gave us a tremendous working capital for artistic exploitation. . . . Our experience may thus enable us to ask more basic questions and to create more meaningful myths than those who have not lived through the whole political anabasis.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1982 to international acclaim, in characteristic Kundera fashion combines a love story, political commentary, and aesthetic exploration with a meditation on the paradoxes of human existence. The novel opens with a consideration of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the “eternal return.” If life is only a sequence of transitory events, Nietzsche suggests, then everything becomes “a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.” If, however, every act and moment are seen as recurring ad infinitum, everything becomes “a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.” In the world of eternal return, “the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of bur-dens.” Offering two different conceptions of existence—transitory or eternally present—lightness or weight, Kundera asks “What then shall we choose?” If lightness liberates, it also makes man “soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.” With eternal return, responsibility “crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground.” This central dichotomy, between lightness or weight, in the novel is embodied in the temperaments of its four central characters—Tomas, a womanizing Prague surgeon, Tereza, his wife, Sabina, one of his many lovers, and Franz, a Swiss professor who has an affair with Sabina. Set before, during, and after the 1968 Soviet invasion, the novel tests its opening thesis about existence in the lives of this quartet.
In the opening of the novel’s seven sections, Kundera introduces Tomas and Tereza. Embodying the concept of lightness, Tomas has engaged in a countless series of “erotic friendships” with other women. However, he finds himself falling in love with Tereza, who represents the opposing principle of weight and responsibility, and they marry, celebrating their union by acquiring a dog they name Karenin. By coming together, each begins to experience the attraction and repulsion of the other’s opposite condition: Tomas, weight, and Tereza, lightness. Tomas, however, continues his compulsive pursuit of women, which Tereza accepts as the burden she must bear to claim his love. Sabina, Tomas’s regular mistress (another personification of lightness whose avoidance of commitment and responsibility will lead her to abandon her numerous lovers and her country), helps Tereza find direction as a photographer, and Tereza enjoys a sense of purpose in her life documenting the Soviet invasion. Sabina, by contrast, immigrates to Switzerland, to Geneva, eventually followed by Tereza and Tomas, who is given a position at a hospital in Zurich. After several months, Tereza learns that Tomas is once again seeing Sabina, and she returns to Prague. Within days Tomas follows her, experiencing the unbearable lightness of being of the novel’s title.
The second section, Soul and Body, retells their story from Tereza’s point of view, filling in details of her family background that explain her neediness in her love for Tomas and her troubling dreams about him. The third section, Words Misunderstood, focuses on Sabina and her relationship with a married Swiss professor, Franz, who, like Tereza, is a figure of weight and responsibility, attracted to his opposite in Sabina. After trying to balance his relationship with his wife and his affair with Sabina, Franz decides to leave his wife, but, after telling Sabina, he arrives at her apartment to find her gone. Documenting the mismatch of Franz and Sabina are interspersed excerpts from “A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words,” such as Woman , Fidelity and Betrayal, Music, Light and Darkness, that underscore their opposite under-standing of reality that dooms their affair. In Paris, Sabina receives a letter informing her that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a road accident. The fourth and fifth sections, Body and Soul and Lightness and Weight, return to Tomas and Tereza’s life in Prague after their return. When Tomas refuses to sign a retraction for an article that he had earlier published critical of Soviet authorities that is now deemed subversive, he loses his job as a surgeon and works as a window washer. Tereza tends bar. Ironically, both learn that when they believe that they were acting to oppose the regime, they were actually helping it. Tereza discovers that her photographs of the invasion are being used by the secret police to identify dissidents. Tomas, refusing to identify the editor of his article, lies about his appearance and unwittingly implicates another editor who resembles his made-up description. To under-stand Tomas’s appetite for extramarital sex, Tereza has sex with a man from the bar whom she learns may be part of a blackmail plot by the secret police. The couple responds to their increasing anxiety under the repressive Czech government by moving from Prague to a collective farm in the country where Tomas works as a truck driver and Tereza as a cowherd.
The two final sections, The Grand March and Karenin’s Smile, resolve all four of the protagonists’ stories, while providing additional contexts to understand the varying attractions and limitations of lightness and weight. In The Grand March Sabina’s commitment to lightness is positively presented as a strategy for contending with the falsification of communist kitsch, which “causes two tears to fl ow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!” Sabina resists state-sponsored optimism and idyllic imagery that are little more than “folding screens that curtain death.” Her advocacy of lightness thereby assumes a political dimension. Her rejection of kitsch, commitment, and responsibility, however, reaches a nihilistic dead end. As she wonders in Words Misunderstood, “Her betrayals had filled her with excitement and joy, because they opened up new paths to new adventures of betrayal. But what if the paths came to an end? One could betray one’s parents, husband, country, love, but when parents, husband, country, and love were gone—what was left to betray?” In Franz’s case, responsibility is equally futile. Traveling to Thai-land to protest Cambodian human rights violation, Franz is senselessly killed by muggers, and in death, as a martyr to the cause, “Franz at last belonged to his wife.” In both cases, neither Sabina’s lightness nor Franz’s weight of commitment and responsibility offer much consolation.
In contrast, the novel ends with Tomas and Tereza reconciled to each other and the contrary condition of existence—light or weight—that has caused them so much distress and unhappiness. As Karenin, suffering from cancer, is put down by Tomas, Tereza speculates that her love for the dog has been superior to her love for Tomas because she never demanded anything of Karenin. For Tomas’s part, he concedes that being faithful to Tereza while living in the country has been the happiest time of his life. The novel, there-fore, closes on a note of mutual recognition and acceptance of the appeal of the other’s condition, lightness interpenetrates weight. The couple dances in a concluding image of movement, music, and harmony as Kundera’s debate ends in a precarious, and, since the reader already knows the couple’s fate, short-lived balance of overcome oppositions:
On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas’s shoulder. Just as she had when they fl ew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together. The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.
Like Tomas and Tereza’s final dance, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a brilliant act of intellectual choreography, setting in motion a compelling human story that is also a provocative meditation on the meaning of existence, human destiny, and desire.