Like many, I first read The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the 1980s. And like most, I loved it then. And what was there not to love? It mixed sex, politics and philosophy in a way that was light years removed from the hand-wringing sensitivities of much of the literature in the 1970s. Instead, it was sharp, contemporary, urbane and in tune with the gritty final years of the Cold War where Prague was a hip place on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
Kundera, the Czech émigré who started out with darkly satirical novels lampooning the communist regime (The Joke, for example) artistically came into his own after being forced to leave his country. In the last decade of the Cold War he published the three novels that defined him as a writer: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality. His enduring fame, though, rests squarely with the second on this list, no doubt helped along by the 1988 movie of the same name staring Daniel Day Lewis and Juliette Binoche.
Less a novel of ideas than a narrative essay, the book goes much beyond its plot which revolves around the philandering neurosurgeon Tomas, his long-suffering wife Tereza, the artist Sabina and left wing Swiss academic Franz whose lives get caught up in the politics of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Russian invasion of the Czech Republic. The story broadens into a meditation on philosophical topics as diverse as Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return, a theory of kitsch starting with the death of Stalin’s son, ruminations about the nature of privacy and totalitarianism. No wonder, The Unbearable Lightness of Being became the must-have accessory of every self-respecting twenty-something, growing up in the1980s, clutching their battered copies as evidence of their European sophistication. Sophistication with a capital “S”, that is.
Yet, as the saying goes, one can’t step into the same river twice. There are dangers of revisiting favourite books decades later, as the currents of time have moved on. It is comparatively rare that these books survive a second reading completely unscathed. More often than not there is the disappointment of not being able to recapture the enthusiasm that accompanied the first reading. Sometimes, however, the disappointment is more profound, an acute embarrassment of finding out that one had been terribly wrong. How could we not have realised at the time that the emperor did not wear any clothes!
Sadly, there are aspects of The Unbearable Lightness of Being which are decidedly less impressive the second time around.
What seemed deep to me at the time, now appears to be often marred by showy cleverness, and Kundera’s tendency to sharpen his argument into final, quotable statements can be tiresome and over-explanatory. Here, the voice of the all-knowing narrator, meant to highlight the artifice of the text, comes across less as postmodern playfulness and more as an unwanted intrusion, at times veering dangerously close to “mansplaining”.
Much of the recent criticism has been levelled at Kundera’s depiction of women. Accusing him of outright misogyny might overshoot the mark here, but his old-fashioned male gaze that defines his female characters is a problem. The famous sex scenes involving bowler hats and mirrors now seem a bit rancid, like a “blue” joke an inebriated uncle might tell to embarrassed titters at a family party. Kundera fares much better when he symbolically charges sexuality as a site of power and desire, freedom and control and the divide between political and private selves such as in Tereza’s disastrous attempt to get back at Tomas by starting an affair with a man who turns out to be a member of the Secret Police.
Tomas, the womanising intellectual who is, rightly or wrongly, often considered a stand-in of its author, is the main offender in this context of modern gender politics. The figure of the libertine, of course, is a stock character in Western literature: the embodiment of sophistication and intellectual detachment whose inherent promise of unencumbered freedom (and sexual gratification) is probably more appealing to a younger readership. Rereading the novel now, in middle-age, the characters of his wife, Tereza, and lover, Sabina, become more intriguing than him as they explore the more complex web of attachment, dependencies and betrayals.
The only let-down here are the dream sequences illustrating Tereza’s suffering at Tomas’ infidelities. I always considered dreams illustrating a character’s emotional state a cop-out where the author suddenly decides to dispense with the necessity of inventing imagery that fits the internal logic of the plot in lieu of a fantasy sequence in the mistaken belief that we reveal our innermost fears and desires while relinquishing control in our sleep. Like in real life, where dreams retold are always of greater interest to the teller than the listener, Tereza’s nightmares fail to engage with any further insight into her state-of-mind.
So, on reflection, is re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being a case of discovering that the emperor didn’t wear any clothes?
Not quite. It might not provoke the same sense of wonder and revelation, it once did, but despite its shortcomings revealed by the passage of time, the novel still has a lot going for it. It largely remains a beautifully constructed echo chamber of big ideas, full of insights and multi-layered motifs, engaging, thought-provoking, even inspiring in parts. Part of its enduring appeal rests on the fact that the main protagonists, maybe despite Kundera’s best intentions, remain engaging characters and not just playthings to illustrate the author’s philosophical musings.
There still are the spot-on set-pieces: the satirical take on celebrity-endorsed pseudo-progressive politics, for example, remains as sharp as always. The contemplation of exile and betrayal is profound and the conclusion satisfyingly heart-breaking while staying true to the story’s philosophical premise and not resorting to cloying sentimentality. Overall, the emperor’s clothes are generally of still admirable enough splendour despite being frayed and torn in places.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (translated by Michael Henry Heim), Faber & Faber