Monday, 21 June 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Author: Milan Kundera

Number of pages: 305

Started: 17 June 2010

Finished: 21 June 2010

Opening words:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that every¬thing recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence it¬self recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?

Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war be¬tween two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.

Will the war between the two African kingdoms in the four¬teenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?

It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.

If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French his¬torians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolu¬tion have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an in¬finite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in his¬tory and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.

Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return im¬plies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Plot summary:

A young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his incorrigible womanizing one of his mistresses and her humbly faithful lover--these are the two couples whose story is told in this masterful novel. In a world in which lives are shaped by irrevocable choices and by fortuitous events, a world in which everything occurs but once, existence seems to lose its substance, its weight. Hence, we feel "the unbearable lightness of being" not only as the consequence of our private actions, but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine.

What I thought:

Hmm, what did I make of this book. In some ways, it was a bit like War and Peace meets Paulo Coelho. This is probably not the strongest recommendation. The War and Peace bit because the way The Unbearable Lightness was written in places reminded me of it – things about coincidence and whether people are really in charge of their own destiny. It was also a sort of philosophical book – and I thought some of the philosophy was somewhat questionable and made assertions that if you thought about it for a few moments you would realise was completely based on flawed thinking.

The book was readable though and I feel as though I have read another of those books that people talk about and nod profoundly when it is mentioned. But I don’t really think that it lives up to its reputation.


anothercookiecrumbles said...

I remember reading this book about five years ago, and absolutely loving it. Read the Book of Laughter and Forgetting last year, which was probably a lot more readable/a lot less meandering. However, I liked Unbearable Lightness of Being a wee bit more - completely different styles/stories though.

Random Reflections said...

anothercookiecrumbles - I read Ignorance and enjoyed that more than this. I would like to read the Book of Laughter and Forgetting at some point.

I tend to be wary of books that have been hyped a lot though and perhaps it naturally makes me biased against them, regardless of their qualities.