I was 17 years old when The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Czech novelist Milan Kundera’s novel about the lives, loves and interior philosophies of four different characters during the Prague Spring of 1968 and its aftermath – came out in English, and one wonders whether there is a more fatal work for such a fatal age. To an adolescent mind, both the book and the subsequent film have a terrible, life-changing power. I’ve met numerous male travellers to Eastern Europe, unable, year after year, to tear themselves away from the region, and at the bottom of their compulsion is usually Kundera’s book.
Why is it so powerful? How does this great novel – and Kundera’s others, to a lesser extent – manage to become this dark alternative Bible for those lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to catch it at a certain age?
Partly, no doubt, it’s that he’s one of those crossover writers, a first step between light reading and serious literature, the kind of novelist you intersect with in your late teens. Kundera catches you, if you’re male, just when you’ve grown out of James Bond, knowing that his heroic acts are silly, his lines cheesey, his machismo naff. Into this sudden gap in your psyche, but into the same Cold War landscape, steps Tomáš, Kundera’s womanising surgeon, with his amorality, his line of mistresses, his one great, heavy love. Like Bond, he’s a kind of sexual superman, but with weaknesses, ambiguities, grey areas that feel like adulthood beckoning. Tereza and Sabina, Kundera’s two heroines, also leave their imprint: so different, so desirable, one rootless and morally sophisticated, the other pristine, vulnerable, almost unwritten on, and both in their way archetypes of male fantasy, like the ultimate pair of Bond girls. Played respectively by Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin in the film, the first soft and soulful, the latter balletically hardbodied, they seem to linger in your mind, in that archive called Heartbreaking Sexual Ideals.
As stories go, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is relatively plotless, and certainly no thriller. A man dedicated to irresponsibility and detachment meets a younger woman, deliberates over inviting her into his life, and then finds that the power to decide has been taken from him, his independence is gone. He chafes at it but rather likes it and, besides, his philandering continues. His amoral mistress Sabina, a painter, is aghast and disgruntled at his new love, but being a sophisticated woman embraces them both (rather too much in the film for a 15 certificate) as the Soviet tanks roll into Prague, taking Czechoslovakia’s freedom away just as Tomáš loses his. Tomáš and Tereza try fleeing to Geneva, but find it altogether too Swiss compared to their home town and make their separate returns. Sabina flees to the same city, and finds it rather more bracing, largely down to the attentions of a married academic called Franz. Franz is a bit too nice and leaves his wife for Sabina, so Sabina falls out of love with him and leaves him for who-knows-what. Tomáš gets involved in some anti-state intrigue and loses his post as a star surgeon. Tereza gets spied on, and loses her innocence. Franz ends up with a new ugly girlfriend, Sabina ends up lonely in America, and Tomáš and Tereza end up killing their sick dog and then themselves in a rural car smash-up. End of book.
So far, so unremarkable. Yet Kundera, with injections of philosophy, music, psychological analysis and plain old Eastern European history manages to mix up a cocktail that comes dangerously close to perverting your vision for life. The book seems to crystallise all one’s adolescent fantasies – of sexual abundance, political action, the pleasure of being weighed down, needed, poetically suffocated by a beautiful woman. What’s more Tomáš, the central character, manages to have his torte and eat it: life is full of euphoric escapes, to rootless, available women, to Geneva, to the idyll of a Czechoslovakian village. And when the warm suffocating mess of domestic romance threatens to obliterate him, there’s always Eastern European politics, with its battering tanks, clear sharp lines, the selfhood of stark choices, to escape into. It’s a lethal brew: just when you start thinking how pink and girly all this stuff about love and sleep and marriage and puppies is, along comes a passage about Dubček’s torture, or Stalin’s son, or the life-changing choices of publishing an anti-state allegory in a totalitarian country. Then, having satisfied your masculine lust for serious themes, it nips in once again with Tereza’s suffering love, or Sabina’s isolation, or the dog Karenin’s death. When a book has this much balance, however crude, it’s insidious: forever making you, one way or another, drop your guard and let in the unfamiliar, even the alien.
Reading him for the first time, if you’re young enough, all your certainties shatter: you feel he wants to wrench out of you any trace of kitschness by the roots. In Kundera’s world – which seems our own – characters may love cruelty more than kindness, can relish betrayal and yet maintain the reader’s loyalty, can love deeply and tenderly yet stamp on that love. Every bourgeois value of good behaviour – the things your parents and teachers told you – comes under attack. What is loyalty? Something which makes human beings heavy and predictable, even a force of death. What is kindness? Weakness, perhaps, laziness, an insensitivity to someone’s deepest needs. Betrayal? An idealism, an optimism, a breaking ranks and a faith that what you have is not unimprovable.
And so it goes on: yet what might seem a kind of howling moral chaos comes at you in crystalline, almost scientific order, as sharp, bright and polished as the Switzerland Tomáš and Tereza flee to. Written by a composer, it unsurprisingly has the quality of music, of something stripped down, organised, precise. The novel, said Kundera, should awaken you to the fact that things are more complicated than you thought. Small wonder that his begins with a long reference to Nietzsche: it has that philosopher’s own urge to tear up the Christian rulebook, to show you the difference between man and slave, and to demonstrate the rewards that come to each: a life of dominance and reward in Tomáš’s case and, in the sweet and domesticated Franz’s, a devastating, punishing loss. Nor is Kundera so simple-minded as to think these states are definitive: Franz’s savage abandonment by his Sabina is redeemed by daydreams, by the Golden Footprint she leaves behind; Tomáš’s strength and independence are finally nobbled by love: but a successful, requited one.
Yet one wonders again why the novel has such a demonic force. It’s almost scriptural, a kind of Gospel according to Judas, minutely analysing betrayals and infidelity, finding the beauty in what many would prefer, in themselves or others, not to exist at all. And it holds out the opposite as well, an enduring love which has the tenderness of parenthood: a lover who pierces you with accounts of her nightmares, who burdens you with compassion, the baby sent to you in a bulrush basket, the one human being with whom you want to share sleep. Countless friends and acquaintances have been led astray by the book. Some have bent over backwards to find in their current (Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian) girlfriends a hint of Tereza’s endearing neediness, have, following Tomáš, projected a kind of poetic poignancy onto their own philandering. For the book offers a seductive account of selfishness, making it seem courageous, and so much more aerodynamic, so much more aesthetic, than its opposite.
In the summer of 1993 I lived for a month in a house in Highgate, London. Downstairs, in a single flat, lived a Polish couple called Darek and Beata. Beata was like a melting snowflake, Darek a brute, and they were known to argue a lot, to have heated fights which echoed through the house. I tried to imagine the suffocating tensions of coupledom in a small room – presumably shared because neither of them were cutting it on the job front. Never being able to get away from each other, having to breathe in each other’s skin cells, wade through dirty unclothes, smell each other’s shit each morning when in the midst of hating each other. Whether it was true or not, I imagined Beata was the suffering party, that she was loyal to Darek, and that such loyalty was a constant irritation. When we saw them in the passageways, they managed polite smiles, Darek’s a little sullen, Beata’s tearstained. I suppose both were locked in a Slavic hell of sadomasochistic dependency but I couldn’t feel sorry for them. On the contrary, I envied Darek terribly for the sad, dark weight of his beautiful partner. I very much wanted to be in that room instead of him, and to be in that predicament. It felt like the gift of reality.
I shared the flat upstairs with two others. Ingrid, a Swiss German, blunt and with a kind of modelly cheekboned sheen about her, and David, a university friend. Ingrid took little interest in me; I had no possibility for her. ‘A man must be big and strong,’ she said. Then there was David. He was a romantically European (and Western European) figure for me, working at SNCF, constantly off on trips to Switzerland, France or Bavaria, fluent in French and German, and planning to do a Phd. (he later did it) on Kafka and Proust. His decency was the intellectual, acceptable kind: he could wince at nationalism but a few minutes later let out involuntary gasps of delight at letters from women he had abandoned, crumpling the paper and muttering lines from Tonio Kroger: ‘Oh well… that’s life. “He who loves more is inferior and must suffer.”’ He and Ingrid held little romantic appeal for each other, but she suffered quietly over a Viking-like friend of his, to whom she would occasionally make daring little calls, trying to keep the note of eagerness out of her voice. He never telephoned her: it was always the other way round. His indifference to her always called her back.
It occurs to me now, if not then, that I was for that month living in an almost purely Kunderan universe.
Now I am older, less impressionable, and as apt to say ‘I’m not buying it’ as Kundera, and Kundera himself is one of those things I’m ambivalent about embracing. Yet the book goes on exerting its hold, embodying that adolescent longing you never quite grow out of, for what the adult world might still turn out to be: worldly, insouciant, full of treats and variety, corrupt but finally redeemable by the grand gesture, bound by the cold steel of a Russian tank and the softness of Tereza’s sleep, with Sabina wedged in between them.
Ah, Sabina! The ultimate woman of the world, with her forgivable corruption, her betrayal addiction and terror of encirclement, her private vocabulary and incommunicable secrets. To be seen as an equal by such a woman, as a soul-sibling… The book is a male fantasy, but only a shallow, partisan mind would dismiss it for that reason; men too exist and must be understood, and as male fantasies go, it’s more archetypal than most, even if what it holds out to you as a promise turns out to be unfulfilled, the majority of us finding that we’re more like the conventional, doltishly decent Franz, than Tomáš the rule-breaking realist. If it’s the Book of Judas, we end up betrayed ourselves. Adult life, for most of us, is not as Kundera describes it, and Tomáš’s world begins to seem the paradise we cannot gain. Never do you stop feeling bourgeois and domesticated beside his feline wilfulness. Never does your lovelife stop seeming tame compared to Tomáš’s Theresienstadt of conquests. It’s ironic that for the naïve reader, Kundera’s novel, so devoted to knocking down fairytales, has become the biggest fairytale at all: a book which seems to offer you the adult world and all its dark magic if you just make the journey Eastwards, a book which is read very differently from how the author intended, even as a sentimental tale, even, finally, a piece of kitsch.
‘Dr.Kundera and Mr.Hrabal Part 2’ by Robin Ashenden is also on this site and can be accessed by clicking on the link below.