The Unbearable Lightness of Being
One of the four central characters of Milan Kundera’s brilliant new novel is a Czech painter named Sabina, who leaves Prague for Geneva around the time of the Russian invasion of 1968 and finds herself in a perpetual struggle against the unbearable banality of her situation as an émigré artist.
Sabina had once had an exhibit that was organized by a political organization in Germany. When she picked up the catalogue, the first thing she saw was a picture of herself with a drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had suffered, struggled against injustice, been forced to abandon her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle. “Her paintings are a struggle for happiness” was the final sentence.
She protested, but they did not understand her.
Do you mean that modern art isn’t persecuted under Communism?
“My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!” she replied, infuriated.
From that time on, she began to insert mystifications in her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life.
Kitsch is the enemy of every artist, of course, but it has special menace for the artist who has made his way out of the abyss of “totalitarian kitsch” (as Kundera calls it), only to find himself peering into the chasm of Western anticommunist kitsch. Kundera, who left Czechoslovakia in 1975, after he was expelled from the Communist party for the second time and could no longer publish or teach there, now lives in Paris and works in an increasingly—what to call it?—abstract, surreal, “poetic” idiom.
His need to experiment with form is surely connected to his personal vendetta against the puerilities of “socialist realism” and its “free world” counterparts. In an interview with Philip Roth which appears in the Penguin edition of Kundera’s previous novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980), Kundera spoke of his great fondness for Diderot and Laurence Sterne, citing them as “the greatest experimenters of all time in the form of the novel.” “Sterne and Diderot understood the novel as a great game,” he told Roth. But writers for whom the issue of artistic freedom hasn’t the urgency it has had for Kundera do not play the game of the novel quite as close to the edge as he has played it.
His novels have all the unpredictability and changeability of mountain weather, and are marked by an almost compulsive disregard for the laws of genre. Like a driver who signals right and promptly turns left, Kundera repeatedly betrays the reader’s trust in the conventions that give him his bearings in a novel. In Kundera’s farcical fairy tale The Farewell Party (1976), for example, a character named Jakub, who possesses a poison pill that he counts on for instant death in the case of arrest, finds a vial of pills, which are some kind of tranquilizer, left on a table in the cafeteria of a health spa, and noticing that they are the same color blue as his own pill, he idly—just to see how closely the colors match—slips the lethal pill into the vial. Suddenly, the owner of the tranquilizers—Ruzena, a vulgar nurse at the spa—bursts into the cafeteria, grabs her vial, and treats Jakub’s attempts to covertly retrieve his own pill with such rude unpleasantness that finally, in mute protest, he simply lets her walk out with the vial intact.
For the next sixty pages, the reader is kept in a state of pleasurable suspense—not over whether the nurse will die or not (how can she, since The Farewell Party is a comedy?) but over the way Kundera will resolve the wonderfully insane situation he has contrived. Jakub, after eighteen hours of rather lackluster search for the nurse, finally learns that she is alive, sighs with relief, and concludes (as the clever reader has already done) that the doctor who had promised to supply him with a lethal pill must have actually given him a harmless one. As Jakub drives away from the spa, he meditates on the philosophical implications of his action. He decides that even though the nurse is unharmed he must count himself no less a murderer than Raskolnikov—since he gave a stranger what he believed to be poison and had made no real attempt to save her. Marveling at his odd detachment, he calmly drives on, and out of the novel. Meanwhile, back at the spa, Ruzena, in a moment of discomposure, has popped a pill in her mouth, clutched her stomach, and fallen down dead to the ground.
In The Joke (1967), Kundera uses another bottle of mislabeled pills for another of his wild veerings of emotional direction—this time to give a potentially tragic situation a “comic” twist. The reader will understand the quotes around “comic” when he learns that the situation involves a desperately humiliated woman’s decision to end her life with an overdose of analgesics that she finds in a friend’s overcoat pocket—which turn out to be laxatives.
Near the end of his novel Life Is Elsewhere (1969), Kundera steps out from behind the curtain of his narrative—the sardonically told story of a mamma’s boy, a young poet who develops into a monstrosity of totalitarian kitsch—and speaks of his restiveness under the constraints of the novel form. “Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective…. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable,” Kundera says ruefully, and then goes on to wonder whether maybe the novelist cannot welsh on his commitment after all: “Man cannot jump out of his life, but perhaps a novel has more freedom. Suppose we hurriedly and secretly dismantled our observatory and transported it elsewhere, at least for a little while?”
Kundera then proposes to write a chapter that will be to the main narrative what a small guest house is to a country manor, and suddenly, without warning, the reader is thrust into one of the most lyrical and heart-rending scenes in contemporary fiction—a scene between a red-haired girl and a middle-aged man (who appears in the novel for the first time) that is of almost unbearable sadness and tenderness. The girl had told a small, gratuitous lie that had had enormous tragic consequences, and the middle-aged man—her sexual initiator when she was seventeen, whose character is a Nabokovian blend of cynicism and compassion—now comforts her as one comforts a hurt child. Kundera describes the scene as “a quiet interlude in which an anonymous man unexpectedly lights a lamp of kindness,” and it fades out of the book (which is interesting and sometimes very funny but otherwise never very affecting) like one of those mysterious distinct sounds one hears at dawn and supposes one has dreamed.
In his next two novels—The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and the book under review—Kundera attempts to recapture this emotional tone while simultaneously experimenting with surrealist techniques. It stubbornly eludes him in the first book, whose surrealism seems somewhat pathetic and outdated, and whose pathos has an “as if” quality: instead of being moved, one is aware of being cued to be moved. But in The Unbearable Lightness of Being Kundera succeeds in actually creating the work of high modernist playfulness and deep pathos that he had merely projected in the earlier book.
Like Ulysses, it is a book entwined with another book—in this case Anna Karenina, a copy of which Kundera, with his characteristic directness, puts under the arm of his heroine, Tereza, as she enters the novel. He draws on Anna Karenina not in a literal sense—his Tereza and Tomas and Sabina and Franz in no way “equal” Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty. It is the existential dilemma at the core of Anna Karenina that he plucks from the Russian novel and restates in terms of the opposition between heaviness and lightness. When Tolstoy wrote of the vacuous and senseless life of Vronsky and Anna in the country after their forced retreat from society (a life that he had the inspiration of showing through the eyes of the careworn, child-burdened, “excessivement terre-à-terre” Dolly, as Vronsky dismissively calls her), he was writing about the unbearable lightness of being. We keep this state at bay with our marriages, friendships, commitments, responsibilities, loyalties and ties to family, culture, and nation; and we float up toward it every time we commit adultery, betray a friend, break ranks, defy authority, sever a family bond, leave a homeland, or (as Kundera goes beyond Tolstoy in suggesting) attempt to create a work of art. “What then shall we choose?” Kundera writes. “Weight or lightness?”
Tomas, a middle-aged Prague surgeon and an unregenerate womanizer, meets Tereza, a simple, mild, somewhat pitiful, immensely touching young woman who works as a waitress in a small town he is visiting, and realizes that she is his fate. Tereza is the embodiment of all the things on the “heavy” side of the ledger: she is like a marble statue entitled FIDELITY or CONSTANCY. Passive, conservative, tradition-bound, she expresses our deepest atavisms of attachment and rootedness; and she inspires profound, compassionate love in Tomas. He cannot help loving her—any more than he can help sleeping with other women. Tomas and Tereza marry, and shortly after the Russian invasion they emigrate to Zurich. Sabina, who is one of Tomas’s mistresses, has already left Czechoslovakia and is living in Geneva. She is the dazzling embodiment of lightness. As dégagé as a cat, she goes her own way and keeps her own counsel; she is ironic, perverse, and beautiful.
She comes to Zurich for a tryst with Tomas; afterward Tomas “thought happily that he carried his way of living with him as a snail carries his house. Tereza and Sabina represented the two poles of his life, separate and irreconcilable, yet equally appealing.” His satisfaction is short-lived, however. One evening, he comes home and finds a letter from Tereza saying that she has gone back to Prague. She needs to return; it is not in her nature to live in exile. For a few days, Tomas experiences “the sweet lightness of being.” He breathed “the heady smell of his freedom. New adventures hid around each corner. The future was again a secret. He was on his way back to the bachelor life, the life he had once felt destined for, the life that would let him be what he actually was.” Then:
On Monday, he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. 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.
Tomas accepts his fate and makes the irrevocable border crossing back into Czechoslovakia.
The narrative here shifts to Sabina and her lover, the “heavy” Franz—a decent, good, intelligent man, a professor attracted to leftist causes, who is married to a woman he doesn’t love and who finally does “the right thing” of telling his wife the truth and moving out of their apartment. This causes Sabina, for whom fecklessness is a kind of personal ethic and who is “charmed more by betrayal than by fidelity,” to leave Franz.
In Prague, Tomas is faced with a choice: the chief surgeon at his hospital tells him that he must retract an impudent political article he published in a newspaper during the Prague Spring or lose his job.
“You know what’s at stake,” said the chief surgeon.
He knew, all right. There were two things in the balance: his honor (which consisted in his refusing to retract what he had said) and what he had come to call the meaning of his life (his work in medicine and research).
In following Tereza back over the border, like Alcestis following Admetus into Hades, Tomas had chosen heaviness over lightness, and now he again chooses the apparently heavy alternative. He refuses to retract the article, is promptly dismissed from his post, is forced to work in worse and worse clinics, is hounded by the secret police for a retraction, and finally, in desperation, voluntarily descends to a rung so far down on the social ladder that the police no longer find him interesting: he becomes a window washer.
Now comes another of Kundera’s astonishing and witty reversals. In choosing honor over expediency Tomas has actually chosen lightness: his new profession proves to be not a degradation and a punishment but a lark and a holiday. Tomas spends his days genially screwing the women whose windows he has come to wash. His libertinism is presented as a kind of libertarianism—a form of research into the variety and idiosyncracy of human nature. He is what Kundera calls an “epic womanizer” as opposed to the “lyrical womanizer,” who merely, rigidly and bleakly, seeks the ideal woman. Earlier in the book, Kundera has written of Tomas’s trick of making himself interesting to women by suddenly commanding, “Strip!”
That was Tomas’s way of unexpectedly turning an innocent conversation with a woman into an erotic situation. Instead of stroking, flattering, pleading, he would issue a command, issue it abruptly, unexpectedly, softly yet firmly and authoritatively, and at a distance: at such moments he never touched the woman he was addressing.
This is like the script of a wet dream. But Kundera gets away with it. In the context—a brilliantly bizarre scene in which Sabina and Tereza alternately take nude photographs of each other and Sabina unwittingly betrays her relationship to Tomas by commanding Tereza to strip—the silliness of the passage goes unnoticed. “Read!” Kundera commands, and we humbly and gratefully obey.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being has a kind of charmed life. It is like a performance that has gotten off on the right foot. Every door Kundera tries opens for him. In the earlier books, one felt like a passenger in a small plane, swooping and dropping precipitately and heading straight for a mountain; in the present book, one travels by steady jumbo jet. The heavy/light polarity acts as a kind of fixative for Kundera’s special sensitivity to the ambiguities and ironies of the position of the Janus-faced political émigré, and to its potentialities as a universal metaphor.
When Tomas decides to follow Tereza back into Czechoslovakia, he commits an act of radical antiromanticism. It is as if Anna had decided to go back to Karenin. (Tomas and Tereza actually name their dog Karenin.) Tomas’s erotic idyll as a window washer reveals the lightness that may lurk even in the most lumpishly heavy of existences—the heady freedom that totalitarianism paradoxically bestows on those of its victims who have nothing left to lose. (Solzhenitsyn introduced this profound paradox in The First Circle.) Tomas and Tereza move to the country—a further slide down the social scale—and are killed in an automobile accident, crushed under the weight of a truck. We learn of their deaths early in the book; most of their story is narrated in the shadow of this knowledge.
Sabina, who has chosen the artist’s condition of “silence, exile and cunning,” bows under the almost equally crushing weight of her alienation. She moves from city to city, from Europe to America, in a state of depression and indifference. We see her disappear somewhere in the expanse of America—a small, gallant, forlorn figure. Before she fades from view, we see her standing at dusk on the lawn of a white clapboard house belonging to an aging couple who have taken her up. She is moved by the sight of two lighted windows, which evoke the sentimental image of home: “all peace, quiet, and harmony, and ruled by a loving mother and wise father.” Sabina briefly warms herself in the glow of this image—“Had she then, herself on the threshold of old age, found the parents who had been snatched from her as a girl?”—but quickly pulls back.
She was well aware it was an illusion. Her days with the aging couple were merely a brief interval. The old man was seriously ill, and when his wife was left on her own, she would go and live with their son in Canada. Sabina’s path of betrayals would then continue elsewhere, and from the depths of her being, a silly mawkish song about two shining windows and the happy family living behind them would occasionally make its way into the unbearable lightness of being.
Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.
If Sabina is the novel’s artistic conscience, Tereza is its emotional center. She is like Tamina of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting—a silently suffering woman living in exile and cleaving to the memory of her dead husband—whose anguish and desolation are rendered in mysterious, fantasy-laden, and somewhat artificial passages whose status as dreams or “sur-reality” Kundera leaves ambiguous. Such passages recur in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but here they are clearly identified as Tereza’s dreams. They are deeply disturbing dreams of naked women, cats, corpses, interrogations, executions, mass exterminations, whose horror is overlaid with a mysterious beauty. In waking life, Tereza often uses the term “concentration camp” to express her sense of life’s oppressiveness and her feelings of weakness and defenselessness. (One hears in her name the echo of the Czech concentration camp Terezin.) As a child, she was victimized by her mother—a fierce, coarse Queen of the Night (as the earlier Tamina invites us to see her)—and she has never lost her air of victimization, her posture of a cringing child.
Franz is the least vivid figure of the four. Near the end of the novel, Kundera makes an authorial appearance to confide that “the characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own ‘I’ ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about.” Franz seems less close to his creator, less densely conceived, than the others; he is more abstract and schematic. His culminating “heavy” action—he joins a mordantly described left-wing international mission of mercy to Cambodia, made up of “twenty doctors and about fifty intellectuals (professors, writers, diplomats, singers, actors, and mayors) as well as four hundred reporters and photographers”—seems to arise as much from his creator’s sense of the fatuity of political activism as from any internal necessity of character.
In the novel’s final section the narrative suddenly narrows, to become the story of the mortal illness and death of the dog Karenin. The self-reflexiveness of the book here gives way to the simplest naturalism, and as we cry for poor Karenin and for the couple who mark the passage of ten years of their relationship in the ebbing life of their dog, we may feel—as Sabina felt while regarding the two lighted windows—that our tears are cheap—that this is kitsch of the most insidious kind, sentimentality at its most invasive. However Kundera, always a few jumps ahead of us, redeems his descent into kitsch with a message of remorseless pessimism—one that another great émigré writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, has already delivered—on mankind’s prospects in the light of its pitiless treatment of animals:
Tereza kept stroking Karenin’s head, which was quietly resting in her lap, while something like the following ran through her mind: There’s no particular merit in being nice to one’s fellow man. She had to treat the other villagers decently, because otherwise she couldn’t live there. Even with Tomas, she was obliged to behave lovingly because she needed him. 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.
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.
Michael Henry Heim’s translation is very distinguished. Kundera’s two previous translators were not secure enough in Czech to avoid all the traps the language sets for the unwary. Heim’s translation hasn’t a trace of the awkwardnesses and weirdnesses of its predecessors; its distinction lies in the clean precision and elegant leanness of diction through which the novel’s taut modernist tone is rendered. In her new novel, Pitch Dark, Renata Adler asks (in the voice of the book’s narrator), “Do I need to stylize it, or can I tell it as it was?” To point out that “telling it as it was” is itself another stylization is only to restate the question that has haunted fiction throughout this century. In Life Is Elsewhere, Kundera used Rimbaud’s line “Il faut être absolument moderne” as an epigraph. But the modern novelist, unlike the modern painter, sculptor, or poet, cannot absolutely divest himself of realism: the modernist novel is inevitably a hybrid form. Only through the illusion that he is in some sense “telling it as it was” can the novelist sustain the reader’s attention and touch his heart. The self-reflexiveness of modern art, its aggressive avowal of materials (cf. Maurice Denis’s provocative injunction of 1890: “Remember that a picture—before being a battle horse or a nude woman or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered over with colors in a certain order”) can extend only partially to narrative literature. Kundera’s work deepens our sense of modernism as a force powerfully pulling at the novelist but never quite taking him over the border.
Oversight July 19, 1984