The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being  
Author Milan Kundera
Original title Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí
Country Czech Republic
Publisher 68 Publishers
Publication date 1984

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Czech: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí) is a novel written by Milan Kundera in 1982, first published in 1984 in France.


[edit] Synopsis

Set in Prague in 1968, the novel details the circumstances of the lives of artists and intellectuals in Communist Czechoslovakia in the wake of the Prague Spring, and the subsequent invasion by the USSR. The major protagonists include: Tomáš, a well-known, successful surgeon; his wife Tereza, a photographer in anguish over her husband's many infidelities; Tomáš's lover Sabina; and Sabina's lover, Franz.

The book centers on Nietzsche's idea of eternal return - that is, the idea that the universe and all the events therein have all happened before, and will continue to recur ad infinitum. Kundera explores this idea, offering an alternate interpretation: each of us has only one life to live, and what happens once will never occur again. He calls this idea "lightness", and refers to the concept of eternal return as "heaviness"" or "weight".

In describing the effect his idea of "lightness" has on a person's life, Kundera says Einmal ist keinmal ("what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all"). By this logic, life is, ultimately, insignificant; in an ultimate sense, no single decision matters. Since decisions do not matter, they are light - that is, they don't cause us suffering. Yet simultaneously, the insignificance of our decisions — our lives, our being — causes us great suffering. Hence the phenomenon Kundera terms the unbearable lightness of being: because life occurs only once and never returns, no one's actions have any universal significance. This idea is deemed unbearable because as humans, we want our lives to mean something, for their importance to extend beyond just our immediate surroundings. Due to the subject choice, some critics have labeled this novel modernist. Others see it as a celebratory post-modern explosion of narrative craft.[citation needed]

[edit] Publication

The novel was first published in the original Czech in 1985 by exile publishing house 68 Publishers (Toronto, Canada). The second Czech edition was published in October 2006, in Brno (Czech Republic), almost 18 years after the Velvet Revolution, because Kundera didn't approve it earlier.

A paperback edition of an English translation by Michael Henry Heim was reprinted in New York by Perennial in 1999 with ISBN 0-06-093213-9.

[edit] Characters

  • Tomáš - The story's protagonist: a Czech surgeon and intellectual. Tomáš is a light-hearted womanizer who lives for his work. He considers sex and love to be discrete entities: he copulates with many women but loves only his wife, Tereza. He sees no contradiction between these two activities. He explains womanizing as an imperative to explore the idiosyncrasies of people (women, in this case) only expressed during sex. At first he views his wife as a burden he is obligated to take care of, but this changes when he abandons his twin obsessions of work and womanizing and moves to the country with Tereza. There, he communicates with his son after the occurrences consequence of a letter, likening the Czech Communists to Oedipus, he published in a magazine. Later, Simon tells Sabina that Tomáš and Tereza died in a car crash; his epitaph was: He wanted the Kingdom of God on Earth.
  • Tereza - Young wife of Tomáš. A gentle, intellectual photographer, she delves into dangerous and dissident photojournalism during the Soviet occupation of Prague. Tereza does not condemn Tomáš for his infidelities, and instead characterizes herself as weaker than he is. She is mostly defined by the division she places between soul and body: because of her mother's flagrant embrace of all the body's grotesque functions, Tereza views her body as disgusting and shameful. Throughout the book she expresses a fear of simply being another body in Tomáš's array of women. Once they go live in the country, she devotes herself to taking care of cattle and reading. During this time she becomes fond of animals, reaching the conclusion that they were the last link to the paradise abandoned by Adam and Eve, and becomes alienated from other humans. She dies with Tomáš in the car accident.
  • Sabina - Tomáš's favorite mistress and closest friend. Sabina lives her life as an extreme example of lightness, finding profound satisfaction in the act of betrayal. She declares war on kitsch, and struggles against the constraints imposed by her puritan ancestry and the Russian Socialists. This struggle is shown through her paintings. She occasionally expresses excitement at humiliation, shown through the use of her grandfather's bowler hat, a symbol that is born during one sexual encounter between her and Tomáš, and eventually changes meaning and becomes a relic of the past. After the death of Tomáš, she begins to correspond with Simon while living under the roof of some older Americans, who admire her artistic skill. She expresses her desire to be cremated and thrown to the winds after death - the last symbol of eternal lightness.
  • Franz - Sabina's lover. A Geneva professor and idealist. Franz falls in love with Sabina, whom he (erroneously) considers a liberal and romantically tragic Czech dissident. Sabina considers both of those identities kitsch. He is a kind and compassionate man. As one of the dreamers of the novel, he bases his actions on loyalty to the memories of his mother and of Sabina, whose eyes he always feels. His life revolves completely around books and academia, so that he seeks lightness and ecstasy by participating in marches and protests, the last of which is a march in Thailand to the Cambodian border. While in Bangkok, after the march, he is mortally wounded during a mugging. Ironically, he always sought to escape the kitsch of his wife, Marie-Claude, but dies in her presence, so that Marie-Claude claims he always loved her. The inscription on his grave was: "A return after long wanderings."
  • Karenin - The dog of Tomáš and Tereza. Although physically a female, the name given always alludes to masculinity, and is a reference to the husband of Anna in Anna Karenina. Karenin lives his life according to routine, and shows extreme dislike of change. Once the married couple moves to the country, Karenin becomes more content than ever, as he is able to enjoy more the attention of his owners. He also quickly befriends a pig named Mefisto. During this time Tomáš discovers that Karenin has cancer, and even after removing a tumor it is clear that Karenin is going to die. On his deathbed he unites Tereza and Tomáš through his "smile" at their attempts to improve his health. When he dies, Tereza expresses a wish to place an inscription over his grave: "Here lies Karenin. He gave birth to two rolls and a bee", after a dream she had shortly before his death.

[edit] Cultural references

  • A line from the first chapter inspired the title of Jonathan Safran Foer's book Everything Is Illuminated.
  • The title of a popular science book "The Lightness of Being" by physicist Frank Wilczek is inspired by this novel.
  • "Tereza and Tomas", the closing track on Bright Eyes' 1997 indie folk album Letting Off the Happiness, was inspired by the book.
  • New York singer/songwriter Regina Spektor named her third album Soviet Kitsch, a term coined in the book.
  • A line references the book in the film High Fidelity as protagonist Rob Gordon proclaims "I mean, I've read books like Love in the Time of Cholera and Unbearable Lightness of Being and understood them. They're about girls, right? Just kidding."
  • An episode of The New Adventures of Captain Planet is entitled "The Unbearable Blightness of Being" based on Kundera's title.
  • An episode of Squidbillies is entitled "The Unbearable Heatness of Fire," in reference to the title.
  • In an episode of The Colbert Report (December 11, 2008) "The Word" segment is titled "The Unbearable Lightness of Supreme Being".
  • A chapter in V.S. Ramachandran's book Phantoms in the Brain is named "The Unbearable Likeness of Being".
  • An article by David Benatar in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol. 16 no.2, is entitled "The Unbearable Lightness of Bringing into Being".
  • In the Friends episode "The One with All the Poker", Joey (Matt LeBlanc) correctly guesses this movie when Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) draws a bean during a game of Pictionary.

[edit] Film

In 1988, an American-made film adaptation of the novel was released starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin, and Juliette Binoche.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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