The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
This is a very philosophical book. The action is usually tied to a big idea, and these ideas are explained in long paragraphs in which nothing happens, paragraphs that I suspect are better in the original Czech. A lot of people would hate the book for this reason alone. That didn’t bother me too much, because I like ideas and philosophy, but I felt the style distanced me from the characters and their emotions. Some of these ideas were profound and unusual, or at least new to me. I learned about kitsch, Communism, and love beginning in a metaphor.
My favorite stylistic innovation in the book was the “dictionary of misunderstood words,” which told a series of anecdotes related to misunderstandings between two lovers, Sabina and Franz. It really struck me how much we assume we understand about each other, but really we can be so off base. And so many of these misunderstandings went unsaid under the surface too. They were a particularly ill-matched couple, but it still makes you think about the unbreachable space between even the closest lovers or friends.
There were some times where I had trouble connecting with the characters or empathizing with them. It seemed like they were either careless, selfish jerks (Tomas, Sabina) or pitiable, deluded doormats (Tereza, Franz). They had patterns that they recognized were destructive, but they were unable to change them or do anything about them. Life is like that too, for sure, but it got frustrating to want them to change and see them continue to hurt themselves and each other. I guess the sticking point for me was the promiscuity. It really bothered me because it seemed so joyless and even compulsive. Maybe that makes me a prude, to get weirded out by an overabundance of fictional sex. But really, Tomas, twice a day, perhaps with two different women (neither of which is your wife) for two years–700 women?!? That’s just gross. You’d think a surgeon would worry about STDs. I was deeply uncomfortable with the way Tomas compartmentalized his sex life–lots of anonymous women to copulate with and just one to sleep with, desire for knowledge and possession of many women versus Tereza’s domination of his “poetic memory.” It was objectifying and unhealthy.
My favorite sections were the parts dealing with the politics, and the story of Karenin the dog. The paranoia caused by surveillance, the constant second-guessing, vacillating between rebellion and conformity, the way that situation destroyed people’s sense of personal integrity–that felt true and real and was incredibly compelling.
It is very unusual for me to like the political part of a book better than the sex part. Yet another proof of what a strange book this is.