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0126 | The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Context: Finished this as we prepared to do some car-boot sales to get rid of stuff prior to moving to PNG.

My second Kundera novel after The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and this was certainly an improvement on that, not that I thought that was hard. There are writers who embed their philosophies in narratives they create. Then there are writers, like Kundera, who embed their narratives in philosophies they create.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book. But, like herbal tea or broad beans, you’re supposed to read it if you want to grow up big and strong in the literary world. That’s not to say I hated it or felt like I hadn’t got a clue what was going on (which I kind of did with Laughter), but it’s not really a novel. It’s more of a description interspersed with thoughtful musings some of which (see below) are great.

But the guy is preoccupied with sex. Everyone sleeps with everyone else. It’s bonkers – quite literally. The other book was the same. The guy must have a Freudian bent (there was a quote from Freud on the frontispiece) because he seems to think that this is fundamental to all relationships. Perhaps he’s confused in this department which would explain it.

At times, I realised that the style must have influence Alain de Botton and, if any of you have read his works, you’ll know what I mean.

Don’t think I grasped what is so unbearably light about being either. Perhaps it was, Ecclesiastes-like, the ephemeral nature of us all. Perhaps it was something else. And, if it is light, quite why it might be unbearable eluded me too, poor miserable thickhead that I am.

Ah well, it’s worth a read for the way Kundera views life and more so, I feel, for the portrait it paints of life under the communist regimes that scarred Czechoslovakia. But I won’t want to read more of him for the time being.

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!


The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become

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)

Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the safety net offered a person by the country where he has family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.

The strains of the piano and violin rose up weakly from below.

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The Quickie Book Review | disha | House of Stories | Bookish and Somewhat Slightly Distracted | My Anger, It May Be Yours Too | Words and Pictures

5 comments… add one
  • Divya 22 October, 2008, 5:22 am

    Nice review…I am amazed to see such different thoughts on the same book :D.
    Happy reading !!

  • Placemats Galore 9 November, 2008, 9:46 am

    The title is about existentialism. My understanding of what he means is that it is unbearable to think of how unimportant our puny little lives are in the grand scheme of the universe. In this way, ‘being’ is ‘light’ because it barely makes an impression upon the surface of the world. I loved the inherent contradiction in the title – how can something so ‘light’ weigh so heavily on the minds of so many generations of humans?

    But even if you didn’t like the philosophy, didn’t you think it was beautiful? The image of the coloured benches floating down the river…

    I loved this book, but that image is my enduring memory of it.

  • luna 11 January, 2009, 5:52 am

    What is unbearable isn’t how “puny” life is… what is unbearable is the lightness of absolute freedom- of a life tied to nothing. Sabina is the only character who achieves the unbearable lightness of being- because she cuts all ties. And she ends up with a lack of past, of future, of context, of meaning.

    Our lives are absolutely meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe. All life is. The planet itself is. Our lives are only meaningful in terms of the impact that we have upon eachother- in terms of the significance of small things, like the recurring bowler hat. And that is weight. It’s the gravity of meaning. And that’s why recurrence is so important- the idea of building a myth around a person or an object or a moment- and coming back to it again and again, if only in your memory. Because that’s how life becomes meaningful- how we construct significance.

    Anyways- that’s how I read the book. I really liked it. It’s one of my favorites. The sex… well, that’s sort of a gimicky catch. A friend of mine hates the book because she says it’s mysogynistic. It probably is. Oh hell- it defininitely is. But I consider that incidental. There’s a lot more to it than that- and I do consider myself a feminist. My friend needs to develop a sense of humor.

    Awesome read. But then, Kundera usually is.

    • Arukiyomi 11 January, 2009, 9:51 am

      Awesome comment. I don’t agree with all of it but I appreciate you challenging me to engage with the book on a level I didn’t realise when I read it.

      I fundamentally disagree with the fact that our lives are meaningless except in terms of the impact that they have on each other. I do agree insofar as I think community is essential but I don’t think that by creating community or impacting others you add meaning to a life. For me, life in and of itself is meaningful.

      I believe that while significance can be placed on objects and people by ourselves through returning, this is not the fundamental significance of anything but our own deterministic subjective significance. As this is entirely relative to ourselves, it can hold no significance beyond ourselves and therefore offer us no perspective that is not blurred by our own perceptions.

      In the statement “we love him because he first loved us” we see the action of a deity to place significance on human life in a value system that transcends any human one. Therefore by choosing us as valuable before we were even created, we can, in my view, have significance from the moment of conception irrespective of our own or others’ views of our significance throughout the life that results from that conception.

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