The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Milan Kundera

I first read this book years and years ago; long enough ago that when I recently saw the movie version, I could barely remember what parts of the story seemed the same or totally different. On my last day in Vienna I spied a copy in a bookstore and bought it as a souvenir, since I’d been to the Czech Republic and rode the train through Kundera’s birthplace, Brno.

Often referred to as a novel of ideas — though Kundera likely disagrees, as he considers novels of ideas to be moralistic more than metaphysical — the story traces a couple over the course of their relationship with some digressions into the life another lover of the guy, Tomas, whose struggle with how he wound up in a monogamous relationship is one of the biggest themes in the book. While the narrative basically progresses in one forward motion, the book is broken into philosophical sections and at times milestones in the story are related nonlinearly.

Though I had felt watching the movie that major parts of the story must be different, it’s actually very true to the original. The film is presented even more linearly and obviously plot points are pruned in places, but perhaps only the main aspect of the book that gets lost is Kundera’s voicing of the metaphysical aspects of the story. This is the only novel I can think of where the author inserts his own voice and refers to his characters as characters that he’s made up, though I’m sure I’ve read others. Here it happens just briefly maybe twice throughout the story, but it makes it clear that the philosophy is Kundera’s, that the characters exist as a means to explore these themes. Strangely this makes the characters no less real to me.

It was interesting to read this again after at least ten years and wonder what I got out of it when I was so young. I remember enjoying my first reading a lot but now it seems like much of the philosophy must have been too big to really take in back then. But it may just be the sort of book that reads differently depending on what you bring to it.