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Sunday, October 20, 2013

What does this mad myth signify?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Like Love in the Time of Cholera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an unconventional* love story. We follow the lives of several pairings of lovers, blending their perspectives on life, death, love, and everything in between. The Prague Spring and Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia provide the backdrop to our story, and its personal and political ramifications play out in the lives of the characters. Kundera paints a contemplative portrait of existence, and his protagonists illustrate his metaphysical musings.

* As in Cholera, love flows not simply from one person to another but from one, to another, to a third, back to the first, and so on and so on. Below is a breakdown of the various marriages and affairs by pairing:

{Tereza + [Tomas} + {Sabina] + [Franz} + Marie-Claude]
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed this novel, though I wasn't sure what I would think of it at first. My sister, Diana, was less than whelmed by it, and we traditionally have similar tastes, but as always, I tried to open my mind and heart to the book, and when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. Kundera strikes a tender balance between the philosophical treatise and traditional novel, and his characters flesh out his mental quandaries in a way that I found organic and beautiful. Like Cholera, I'd suggest patience with this one if you're planning to read or have read and didn't get through. It took time for me to feel out the flow of it, and its rhythm was not immediately apparent.

- On this life being our only go-round
"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come." Kundera comes back to this theme with some frequency. I loved the idea that we can't weigh our lives against other versions of them, or make changes and try again, because this is the only one we have. 

- On 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 is tortured by Tereza's bad dreams at one point, and realizes that he could withstand violence against the rest of the country and the world (to his horror) but her grief and pain from her dreams is unbearable.

- Reading a book is the best first move
"He had an open book on his table. In Tereza's eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood." Tereza falls for Tomas when he's the only one reading at the restaurant she works at. I loved this moment because more often than not, I'm the one with my nose in a book. Maybe all I need to do to find my Tomas is read at restaurants more often! ;)

- On cutting novels some slack and seeing the small things in our own lives more
"It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty." Kundera points out that while novels seem to be rife with coincidences and fortuitous events, our own lives possess them as well, and in our need to see novels as fiction, we preclude ourselves from seeing the chance moments in our own lives. Open your eyes to these moments more - maybe you'll be surprised by their poignancy!

- On the Russian invasion
-- "Photographers...preserve the face of violence for the distant future." I loved this line - Tereza and Sabina are both photographers, and they record the events of the Prague Spring and Russian invasion. In today's world, photographs are an assumed artifact of our existence; they provide incontrovertible proof of an event's occurrence. What would we believe more deeply from 200 or 2,000 years ago if we had photographs of everything? Might those photographs keep us from repeating mistakes?
-- "The Russian invasion was not only a tragedy; it was a carnival of hate filled with a curious (and no longer explicable) euphoria."
-- "It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has become an ally of the secret police. We do not know how to lie." The political upheaval of Prague was intertwined with the characters' lives in an understated, yet fascinating way. I thought this line was a perfect illustration of Kundera's self-reflective narration and this pairing of the personal and political.

- Living abroad
"Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues, and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood." I found this such a poignant depiction of living in another country - when I lived in France, I felt much like Tereza after she moved to Switzerland. I've often bemoaned the fact that among other things, I lost my sense of humor - I wasn't fluent enough in French to be funny, or tell a humorous story. It's a tenuous balance, blending the joy of experiencing such newness and feeling so removed from the familiar.

- 'Words Misunderstood'
Kundera includes a "words misunderstood" section to describe the disconnect in Franz and Sabina's relationship. It was one of my favorite parts of the novel. Here's an example:

  • Sabina: "When the sun goes down, the cemetery sparkles with tiny candles. It looks as though the dead are dancing at a children's ball... No matter how brutal life becomes, peace always reigns in the cemetery...against a backdrop of blue hills, they were as beautiful as a lullaby." This is how I feel about cemeteries. I still remember Père Lachaise in Paris and its meandering elegance, the gatekeeper for the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Modigliani, and Proust.
  • Franz: "For Franz, a cemetery was an ugly dump of stones and bones."
Later, after they've separated, Sabina comes to see Franz's point of view on things more, and Kundera writes:
"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." What an exquisite sentence.

- Karenin (love, and a bit wiv a dog)
Hands down, the most heartbreaking moment (SPOILER ALERT! I know, it's out of place - Sorry!) was when Karenin, Tomas and Tereza's dog, dies. They euthanize him at home, and the last few weeks they share with him as he's dying are heartrending. Here are a few of my favorite lines about him (actually, he's a she, but they decide that Karenin is the most appropriate fit for him from Anna K, which Tereza was reading at the time. I don't know anyone that gives a pet the wrong gendered name (AHEM. Harvey.):

- "Lately, Tereza realized, she positively enjoyed being welcomed into the day by Karenin. Waking up was sheer delight for him: he always showed a naïve and simple amusement at the discovery that he was back on earth; he was sincerely pleased. She, on the other hand, awoke with great reluctance, with a desire to stave off the day by keeping her eyes closed." This is exactly how I feel about my cat, Suzy. She's delighted to get up each day, if for no other reason than to badger me into consciousness, while I (and my chronic sleep apnea) feel a bit more like this Brad Pitt line from Ocean's Twelve: "Are you suicidal?" "Only in the morning."

- "Her home was Karenin, not Tomas. Who would wind the clock of their days when he was gone?" When Tomas and Tereza were getting ready to put Karenin down (Tomas is a doctor until he's forced to abandon his career due to persecution by the secret police), it reminded me of a time I took Suzy to the vet about a year ago. I was sitting in the waiting room with her in her travel carrier, and when I looked across the lobby, I saw a couple holding their cat in their laps. I was confused, and immediately thought that maybe they were a new-agey couple, and that they felt the carrier was too confining for their kitty. I didn't think much more of it, and went in with Suzy for her appointment. When I came out toting Suzy, the couple was standing next to the receptionist and weeping. Their arms were empty. Only then did I realize that they didn't bring a carrier because they were bringing their cat to be put down. On the way back home, I told Suzy profusely how much I loved her, and how sorry I felt for that couple. I also promptly told my rooommate, Josh, how great it was that that would never be a problem with Suzy because she was Never Going to Die. (#isn'tdenialthebest?) I Could tell you that I didn't weep uncontrollably when Karenin died. I could Also tell you I have three heads and a million dollars in the bank.

- On characters
Like Proust, Kundera pontificates about writing while he's writing. Some people probably find this very pretentious, but I find it's the moment when I feel most connected to an author. Here are a few of my favorite moments like this from the book:
--"Characters are not born like people, of woman; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing in a nutshell a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered or said something essential about."
--"The characters in my novels are all 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."

Sentences that struck me:
  • "Tomas lived under the hypnotic spell cast by the excruciating beauty of Tereza's dreams."
  • "Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love."
  • "The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It's unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern." -- in other words, "Beauty by mistake."
  • "What does it mean to live in truth?"
In the last scene of the book, we experience the night before Tomas and Tereza die. (Sorry, I know I'm spoiling all over the place. It's no use crying over spoiled spoiler alerts, now is it?) We know they're going to die because we've already heard the news earlier in the novel, and Tereza suspects that their end is near. It was one of my favorite moments in the novel, so I'll leave you with it.

"On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas's shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and the odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together."

Onwards to Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, pumpkins and midnight margaritas! I'll be back with An Invocation for Lewis Nicepants. Adieu!

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