Ben's Reviews > The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
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's review
Dec 17, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites, good-fiction, read-in-2009, war, philosophy, to-read-again, all-time-favorites, romantic-love-and-hate, memorable-characters
Read in July, 2009 , read count: 2

I was hesitant to start this, and figured for awhile that it would be one of those books that maybe I’d get around to or maybe I wouldn’t. It just didn’t seem like something I’d enjoy – it seemed too soft, or too postmodern, or too feel-good, or too based in hedonism, or too surface oriented. What caused me to give it a shot was the simple fact that I’ll be traveling to Prague in a few weeks, and since the book's setting takes place there, I figured it may put me in the mood for the trip. I figured it was “now or never” in regards to reading it. And yet, even with that being the case, I hesitated a bit. That is, until the mere mentioning it received an almost overzealously positive response from two close friends (whose opinions I hold in high regard). Their response was so enthusiastic that I was pushed over the edge; shoved into thinking that the novel’s chances of being lame had been lessened, and that it would be worth the trial.

And I’m glad I decided to give this book a shot. Damn glad.

The novel traces the lives of two couples during the Soviet occupation of Prague, during the late 1960’s. The novel deep-heartedly charts their struggles against communism, their pasts, their lovers, and themselves.

Kundera observes the stuff that goes on internally amongst the characters; he intellectualizes it, and tells you about it. He’s quite philosophical, and you feel like the narrator is talking to you, offering very insightful observations about the characters and life in general. This is one reason why reading is often more valuable than watching TV or a movie: when reading a good book you get direct psychological explanations, and you get to go inside the heads of characters.

Taken as a whole, I found this novel to be profound, but in unusual ways. It’s not a direct novel, but rather one that represents, and lets one feel, disconnections and various glimpses of perceptions. And it wasn’t a smooth novel, either. It even felt choppy on occasion. But the chapters are short, which fits its feel, and also gives you time to think about the penetrating thoughts that Kundera puts across. Kundera strikes me as a craftsman of sorts. He switches timelines deftly and effectively – even when I thought he was crazy to do so; when I thought he gave up the climax of the novel towards its middle, he proved me dead wrong. He proved to me that he knew exactly what he was doing because he’s a master of the craft. This novel is not full of sweeping, pounding paragraphs of poignant, soul-hitting, philosophical depth, but rather offers up constant glimpses; nuggets of insightful observations on almost every page, that when added up together, reveal an impressive, heartfelt, and real work.

I love the way this novel portrays love. It recognizes and represents its beauty while at the same time showing how psychological and manipulatable it can be. The loves in this novel are accurate ones, not at all cheapened by gimmicky slogans or conventional lines. "The dance seemed to him a declaration that her devotion, her ardent desire to satisfy his every whim, was not necessarily bound to his person, that if she hadn't met Tomas, she would have been ready to respond to the call of any other man she might have met instead."

Kundera brilliantly portrays how simple things like our past, our country, images, family – even metaphors, can affect our psyche and major life decisions. "Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love."

Its fragility and delicacy: "What would happen if Tomas were to receive such a picture? Would he throw her out? Perhaps not. Probably not. But the fragile edifice of their love would certainly come tumbling down. For that edifice rested on the single column of her fidelity, and loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away."

"Perhaps if they had stayed together longer, Sabina and Franz would have begun to understand the words they used. Gradually, timorously, their vocabularies would have come together, like bashful lovers, and the music of one would have begun to intersect with the music of the other. But it was too late now."

Sometimes even one sentence can say a lot: "Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love."

"While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs (the way Tomas and Sabina exchanged the motif of the bowler hat), but if they meet when they are older, like Franz and Sabina, their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them."

And it’s worth reiterating that the philosophical ideas in this novel are very thought provoking: "Tomas thought: Attaching love to sex is one of the most bizarre ideas the Creator ever had."

The importance of our decisions. The lack of importance of our decisions. The unavoidable importance of life. The unavoidable lack of importance of life.

That's how this novel feels.

If I'm to give a book five stars, it needs to affect me in some profound ways -- it needs to change me, at least a little. This novel has affected my view of life; how I see the world. Specifically, it’s helped me better understand beauty. I have trouble elaborating on that because beauty is such an abstract concept; you know it when you see it, or rather— you know it when you feel it. Beauty has some melancholy; it is appreciative -- special but fleeting -- and never fully absorbed as its full whole. Maybe that's a major aspect of beauty -- knowing it is beyond your grasp. Beyond you.

Life is ultimately a crapshoot. You don't know what's going to happen. You might as well hang on to something. And that something might as well be love -- whether it be plutonic, romantic, or, if you’re lucky, both. And if that's what you're going to hang on to (and you are), then you might as well understand its simplicity and its complexity, and its beauty -- you might as well understand and appreciate as much of it as you can. It only makes sense that you do.

This novel can help you do that.
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Reading Progress

01/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 53) (53 new)

message 1: by C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. Yay! I loved this book.

message 2: by Ben (last edited Jun 22, 2009 08:14PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Choupette, so far in a unique, special way, it is beautiful.

Kelly I'm really interested what you'll think of this one.

message 4: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Choupette wrote: "Yay! I loved this book."

Me too! It's great.

message 5: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim :)

Chloe Yay, this is, by far, the best book that I've read all year. I can't wait to reread it again soon.

message 7: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim :(

'Words Misunderstood' is the best.

Kelly Heh. Jelly jar. I like that.

message 9: by Dave (new)

Dave Russell Kundera reminds me of Dostoyevsky in the way he'll interrupt the narrative to comment on it, sort of drawing back the curtains. Except I think Kundera's commentary is a little more playful and the threads between story and comment are more interwoven. Godard I suppose is the cinematic equivalent.

message 10: by Ben (last edited Jul 01, 2009 12:53PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben I agree, Dave. I like it when writers use commentary and observations that help the story dig deeper into the character's minds and hearts. And interesting and sound philosophical observations can turn a novel from a good one to a great one. I also agree that Dostoevsky is more thorough and indepth with it than Kundera -- Kundera throws in insights without the strong dialogues (including inner dialogues) that Dostoevsky does. Playful new perceptions get exposed in this though, and you're right, it's in a kind of playful way. I liked it a lot.

message 11: by Jessica (new)

Jessica this book didn't grab me, but i like your review.
I read it many years ago, and should probably see how I feel about it now

message 12: by Ben (last edited Jul 01, 2009 12:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks Jessica. It really surprised me. It's not in my top 5 favorite books of all time, but it's probably in my top 10. I'll reread it some day. If you do reread I'd be interested to hear if it grabbed you upon your second reading. There are tons of books I want to read again that didn't formerly grab me, but I think may now, at this different stage in my reading-life, and different stage in life in general...

message 13: by Jen (last edited Jul 01, 2009 12:35PM) (new)

Jen I loved Prague. I think it was because, if one got lost, as I did, it was possible to make rudimentary hand gestures representing a clock and the passing of time and people could easily guide you back to the heart of the old city. I also liked watching pick pockets make their moves on unsuspecting tourists on the bridge. It was wrong but so fun. Plus as an added bonus there were eager young men in powdered wigs shoving handbills at you for concerts. I pretended they were secret love letters and collected quite a few. Almost all of them involved Mozart, which was sexy. This you might not find so enjoyable.

Also, they had penis postcards. I would think it was a postcard I could send home, but then! look again! there's a penis there! Sorry mom!

message 14: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Jen, I sometimes get lost in the town I live in, so I'm sure I'd also like that about Prague. Luckily I'm traveling with my Swiss friend, Marc, who happens to encompass all the Swiss stereotypes. He's very organized and detailed oriented; very much a planner, and very good with directions. This is great for me, because I tend to be lousy at most of those things!

message 15: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Penis postcards? HA. I have a few people I may send those to.

message 16: by Jessica (new)

Jessica i'll take one Ben

Michelle I loved your review, Ben. And, I'm very jealous of your Prague trip!

message 18: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks, Matt! Thanks, Michelle! Matt, I'm impressed that you're going to be moving there -- that will undoubtedly be a life changing experience. I can hardly wait just to visit. I see you're into Kundera. I got the feeling that he put everything he had into this, but maybe not? I'll have to look into some of his other books. I can't pass up the chance at an experience similar to this one.

And Jessica, penis postcard coming your way! (I'll search them out -- hopefully they will still be there. If not, I guess you'll have to settle for something less exciting.)

message 19: by Jessica (new)

Jessica any czech pcard will do really, thanks!

Chloe Crazy small world! We lived in Prague from 2004-2005 and it is still one of my favorite cities in the world. Our flat was about two blocks from the Charles Bridge on Naprstkova St. and there was the best tiny family-run restaurant directly across the street called Cafe Archa that you must go to. It maybe has four two-person tables, but the food is delicious (try the goulash) and they had my favorite Czech beer on tap (Krusovice). My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

message 21: by C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. Great review, Ben! You reminded me of many parts of the book I'd forgotten (that line about sex and love is really great). I'm really glad you enjoyed it; I need to reread it.

I got the feeling that he put everything he had into this, but maybe not?

A few months ago I came across a novel of his in a second-hand bookshop. I didn't buy it, but the dust jacket gave the (very strong) impression that The Unbearable Lightness of Being was a prologue to the swelling act, kind of thing. Unfortunately I can't remember the title or the book, or exactly what the dust cover said.

message 22: by John (new)

John Ben, a good thorough job -- & while you're in Prague (making me jealous) look up the old haunts of Herr Kafka. Kundera owes him, big time.

message 23: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Choupette wrote: "Great review, Ben! You reminded me of many parts of the book I'd forgotten (that line about sex and love is really great). I'm really glad you enjoyed it; I need to reread it...."

Thanks, Choupette, we certainly agree and I completely understand your enthusiasm for this one. Maybe in a few months as we continue to trudge through our "to read" piles, we should try reading another one from Kundera at the same time and talk (er, write) about it with each other.

message 24: by Ben (last edited Jul 01, 2009 07:01PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben John wrote: "Ben, a good thorough job -- & while you're in Prague (making me jealous) look up the old haunts of Herr Kafka. Kundera owes him, big time. "

Thanks, John! Will do! And perhaps I'll pick up another one of his books sometime soon. Been a long time, and Kafka is great.

message 25: by C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. Yeah sure! Might encourage me to get a move on and read some.

message 26: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Yay!

message 27: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Damn right, Kimbo!

message 28: by Ben (last edited Jul 02, 2009 02:33PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks, Alisa. I can understand the difficulty that you may have had feeling connected to it, as a lot of the thoughts that Kundera put forth didn't always directly relate to the characters, and/or storylines, in straightforward ways. Depending on the book, I think it's sometimes easier for someone to figure out why they did connect with a well-written work as opposed to why they didn’t, but I'm not sure with this, given the general theme of misunderstanding and disconnection that runs through it. I did see and feel a lot of the correlations between the characters and Kundera's philosophical ponderings, though, but didn't all the time -- but then again, I didn't feel that I needed to by the end, because I felt like the novel, when added up as a whole, had an important quality of truth and beauty to it. Of course, there have been plenty of novels that others have understood and loved that I just couldn't understand or get into, so a lot of it's personal taste, and past experiences, and timing, etc.

As far as this goes: maybe this book can be more personal after a break up-- I think that could very well be true. It's easy to look at past relationships in a different light after reading this, and with one fresh on the mind it makes the novel all the more relatable as a telling-piece of sorts on the miscommunications and disconnections that took place. Another reviewer wrote that she wasn’t surprised to get a phone call from her ex-boyfriend after she found out he was reading this – that comment makes sense given the new angles he may have started seeing their relationship through during his reading.

Thanks for your input, Alisa. Excellent feedback.

message 29: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Excellent review. Another book TBR, sigh.

message 30: by Ben (last edited Jul 02, 2009 08:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks, Richard. My "to read" section is huge as well, but I found that by creating a "to read soon" shelf it helps me narrow things down a bit.

But yeah, definitely give this book a shot. Definitely.

Nicole Bravo. Prague is amazing. Enjoy! I will add this one to my "to read" list. I basically read whatever you have read based on your reviews.

message 32: by Ben (last edited Jul 05, 2009 07:00PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks, Nicole -- I enjoy discussing books with you, so I'm glad you find yourself interested in trying out some of the same novels. During the trip, we're also doing Amsterdam and Berlin, so hopefully those will turn out well, too.

Good to know that about Kundera, Matt. I'll be sure to pick-up one of his other books now. Cheers.

s.penkevich Wonderful review!

message 34: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks! I appreciate it!

Xiaohe A+ review! :)

message 36: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thank you, Xena!

Demetrius Burns Fucking brilliant review. This book changed my life and you reviewed it like a fucking boss. Keep writing, reading and thinking. I'll be following you, man. In the most creepy of ways ;)

message 38: by Ben (last edited Nov 20, 2012 09:55AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks so much, Demetrius! I'm hoping to read this for a third time within the next few months. Amazing book.

message 39: by Tess (new) - added it

Tess Bodart your review made me pick up the phone and ordered a copy of the book.

message 40: by Ben (last edited Dec 03, 2012 11:35AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben It's amazing. And Kundera is very different from any other author you'll read. He's all about perceptions and the Big Picture, and he mixes story-telling with analysis to emphasize his points.

binnudeya Great great review!

message 42: by S (new) - rated it 4 stars

S Loving your review!

message 43: by Mallory (new)

Mallory Love this review!!

Tapioca I really, really appreciated your review and it was well written.

Carol Great review, I feel like you grasped the same insightful ideas from the book as I did. I love reading other peoples' thoughts on books I love and your review did not leave me wanting.

message 46: by Enzo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Enzo This was a fantastic review of one of my favorite books

message 47: by Tammy (new) - added it

Tammy This is a well written review!

message 48: by Susy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Susy I really like your review. I agree with your comments about Kundera's sharply drawn commentary. However, for me the novel was less successful in that I found that the actual characters and their actions were less organically drawn and more of a tool for Kundera's commentary on love, ego and upheaval. I remember thinking that Prague was the best character in the book. Do you agree with any of this? Was thinking it may be time for a more mature re-read. Thanks

message 49: by Anna (new) - added it

Anna Shetler Lovely review - it's prompted me to put this book on my reading list! thank you!

message 50: by Mike (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mike Pickowitz Couldn't have put it any better, myself.

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