The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This book has gone through so much with me. I borrowed it from Maki early last year, returned it before I had a chance to read it, then borrowed it again in the last quarter of 2011. I started it during a very busy month, and had to stop after two chapters because I felt my intermittent reading didn’t do it justice. This second time around, I made sure I had time.

Early in the novel we are asked, “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” Just as Sabina’s paintings “featured the confluence of two themes, two worlds…all double exposures,” this book highlights various oppositions: soul and body, public and private, truth and farce. But the foremost burden that confronts us is the unbearable lightness of being, which echoes Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “One time and no more. And we, too, / once. Never again, But to have existed / this once, even if only one time: / to have existed here on earth, appears irrevocable.”

In this book Kundera offers keen insights into the human condition, startlingly precise observations flung across the pages in abundance, creating “an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.” If this is an investigation, it is a mathematical one: there are five meanings attached to Sabina’s bowler hat, exactly six fortuities that bind Tereza to Tomas. Despite this narrative precision, the novel does not content itself with mere dimensions, goes beyond the measurable. It plumbs irreparable gulfs between people, examines the seemingly insurmountable distance between one person and his beloved. Kundera dramatizes this solitude through Sabina and Franz: How is it possible to love when you can never completely know the other, when one word for you means another for him? In Rilke’s words, “Lovers, you who are each fulfilled by the other, / you I ask about us. You clasp each other. Do you have any proof?”

Occasionally the narrative treads into the realms of philosophy or politics, but the gems of the novel are really Tomas and Tereza. Despite his incurable womanizing, despite her persistent dreams, love still stretches itself between them. It is a beautiful, enviable thing. At times I had to stop reading just to ponder, and wonder at this unearthly love. For the longest time I didn’t know what to reply when asked which books have changed my life. Now I can finally say something.

This…reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.

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.

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.

Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).

For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.

If a love is to be unforgettable, fortuities must immediately start fluttering down to it like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulders.

No, vertigo is something other than the fear of falling. It is the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.

She was amazed at the number of years she had spent pursuing one lost moment.

‘Culture is perishing in overproduction, in an avalanche of words, in the madness of quantity. That’s why one banned book in your former country means infinitely more than the billions of words spewed out by our universities.’

It was completely illogical. How could someone who had so little respect for people be so dependent on what they thought of him?

And now she was with him again. He saw her pressing the crow wrapped in red to her breast. The image of her brought him peace. It seemed to tell him that Tereza was alive, that she was with him in the same city, and that nothing else counted.

He tried to picture himself living in an ideal world with the young woman from the dream. He sees Tereza walking past the open windows of their ideal house. She is alone and stops to look in at him with an infinitely sad expression in her eyes. He cannot withstand her glance. Again, he feels pain in his own heart. Again, he falls prey to compassion and sinks deep into her soul. He leaps out of the window, but she tells him bitterly to stay where he feels happy, making those abrupt, angular movements that so annoyed and displeased him. He grabs her nervous hands and presses them between his own to calm them. And he knows that time and again he will abandon the house of his happiness, time and again abandon his paradise and the woman from his dream and betray the “Es muss sein!” of his love to go off with Tereza, the woman born of six laughable fortuities.

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions—love, antipathy, charity, or malice—and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals.

On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas’s shoulder… She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together.


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