The Unbearable Lightness of Being
By Milan Kundera
This blog is about brutal honesty.
I could write something long and philosophical about this book. Lord knows it delves into some pretty weighty issues and philosophical arguments about life. I mean, the title alone suggests to the reader that you are not simply sitting down for a light afternoon of reading. This novel explores the relationship between love, sex, violent, domination and hatred. The fact that the book is set in Prague during the 1960s and you have a recipe for a very bleak tale (which it is by the way). One should expect something equally serious from a blog post on the subject of such a weighty (pun intended) literary piece.
I could write something like that, but the purpose of this blog is not so much to review the books I read but rather apply them to my life in some manner. So if you were looking for something about life, love and sex as philosophical topics, go away now.
So how does The Unbearable Lightness of Being relate to me as a reader?
It's one of the few books I have read after having seen the movie.
I should probably fess up a little here. I have sat through the entire 1988 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin. I was probably 15 or 16 at the time I watched it. No, I wasn't a coffee-drinking art-house film nerd in high school. I didn't understand a single moment of the movie. I had a vague idea that is was something pretty deep and often dark, but that didn't really concern me. I sat through the entire running time (including the credits) not because I had a keen interest in insignificance and eternal recurrence but rather this movie had copious amounts of full frontal nudity (I told you this blog is hell bent on brutal honesty).
For a 16 year old boy staying up late on a Friday night to watch Late, Great Movies on CityTV in Toronto, this was the godsend of films. It also was the beginning of a lifelong crush on Juliette Binoche. I spent another three years scouring the TV guide for a replay. It never happened, to my knowledge. Shame.
Sixteen years later, I still recall the film (or parts of it, anyway) but certainly not the plot. I usually have a rule about reading a book if I have already seen the movie, but this hardly felt like cheating. And if it is cheating, certainly this is the book in which one would be excused for it. Only once while reading did I recall a scene from the movie (the scene where Juliette Binoche photographs Lena Olin in the nude and then they are both nude... these sorts of cinimatic memories stay with you). Otherwise, it was an entirely unread novel to me.
The book, of course, is more satisfying than the film because Kundera takes more time to get to the heart of what he is trying to say. Kundera seems to have a very negative view on relationships in general, often bordering on misoginistic. But the book is what it is and one cannot fault an author simply because you disagree with him or her. The death of Karenin was a particularly poignant episode in the novel both as a plot device and metaphor for Thomas and Teresa's "lightness" becoming less "unbearable." But I couldn't have read this book at the age of 16 (or 26 for that matter). It would have bored me to tears like Wuthering Heights. I think reading it now, at the age of 35, was probably perfect timing. I'm probably just old enough to understand what Kundera is getting at (assuming I understand, that is... but I think I do).
In the end, reading this book was like coming full circle. It was the same as reading Catcher in the Rye for the second (or fifth) time and realizing that Holden Caufield isn't a misunderstood teenage genius but rather a boy hopelessly in danger of irrelevance. I'm obviously a more layered onion than I was at the age of 16. At the age of 35, The Unbearable Lightness of Being amounts to a bit more than just Juliette Binoche's naked body.
Although, it did add a nice touch to the overall package, don't you think?