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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Love Your Shelf Book Club #1: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera


With Sarah and Lynette.

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 pristine actions but also in the public sphere, and the two inevitably intertwine. (Harper Perennial edition)

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES

L: Probably a massively obvious one, but the nature of love. Tomas with all his women, yet love for Tereza. Tereza's jealousy. Sabina and Franz.
S: Uh huh. And the ‘lightness’ vs. ’heaviness’ of love and sex.
L: And of life in general. Meaning in life. I thought the book verged on the nihilistic in both respects.
S: Lots of parallels. Personal freedom vs. commitment. Coincidence/chance vs. fate.
L: Yesss. The idea of motifs in life tying in with the coincidence vs. choices thing.
S: Politics, death. And interesting point about the nihilism! Think we'll pick that up again soon.
L: Communication. The complete mismatch of understandings between Franz and Sabina. I think the same could be said of Tomas and Tereza.
S: Yup, good one! The soul vs. the body.

Lena Olin as Sabina in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

L: 'Dang, interesting philosophical questions!' That was the first note I made, lol.
S: The first chapter certainly got my attention. I think I sat up a little straighter when I read it! It was a bit more than I bargained for at the outset. I was also rather concerned that the rest of the book would be like that, as I had to read it quite slowly/re-read parts to get a handle of it. I was like, 'Uh oh.'
L: I know what you mean! However, I was more excited by that. I only felt more concerned – or perhaps, more aptly, frustrated – later in the book where there were fairly long philosophical interludes and I just wanted to get on with the story... which is where part of my ambivalence comes in. I loved the depth, the thoughtfulness, the metaphysical threads, the fact that each character's motive and worldview was exposed – yet sometimes I just wanted to get on with the story, simply the story.
S: I was intrigued and wondered how the start would tie into the story. But it was a bit philosophically heavy! Things eased up somewhat after that, so I was relieved!
L: Interesting. I didn't feel like they eased up so much.
S: Yeah, there were lapses. I mean once the story got going and I guess there was more context for the ideas. The intro was somewhat dense. I think you get thrown in at the deep end.

WHAT WE THOUGHT

S: I appreciated the unique perspectives on emotions, choices and relationships. The book was intellectually engaging to me, and I think that's where its main strength lies – in ideas. It's about little things, but also everything. But I agree with what you said before – there were parts (e.g., the rambling section on literal shit) where I was like, 'OK, let's move this along now.'
L: Yessss! Oh, that went on for too long, haha. I thought, 'Thanks, I think I get what you're saying.' I ended up skimming that bit.
S: And dear lord, if I have to read another Moses basket in the bulrushes metaphor...
L: Hahahaha! Yet that was such an important metaphor for Tomas.
S: It was... but it's about quality, not quantity... The thing is, you could probably argue that anything objectionable was intentional. The repetition ties into the whole Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence as opposed to the idea that everything happens only once. Postmodernism's tricky like that.
L: That's a good point! It even ties into the idea of motifs – Beethoven's repetition of his 'Es muss sein' motif, which repeats and repeats in Tomas's life.
S: Uh huh! So I think there's this odd tension that comes up a lot in this book between what the author's trying to say on an intellectual level and what would be deemed 'traditionally' good storytelling, as the repetition would probably be seen as redundant in any other work. And I get that, but I also slightly resent it, as with other postmodern works. Didn't like something? You just didn't get it!
L: Right. Like, at the end of the book when the author is talking about kitsch, I just had the feeling that he would shake his head at me in deep postmodern disappointment – because I like kitsch!
S: Haha! He came down pretty hard on that one.
L: And while I appreciate a good philosophical turn, I'm just not postmodern enough to appreciate some of its literary techniques, I think...!
S: And, no joke, but I think 'groin' and 'moist' are two of my least favourite words in the English language. Not only does the former appear liberally, but both are actually used in the same sentence at one point (shudders).
L: Hahahahaha! I'm sorry to laugh, but I'm just imagining your distaste.
S: 'Groin' is such an odd word choice, too! Why?
L: Hmm. Maybe he knows it's not exactly people's favourite word, so he's chosen it for effect. Maybe it's tied up in some way with shame or whatever. I hadn't really considered that.
S: Postmodernism! 😒
L: Haha! Yes!
S: On the note of breaking storytelling conventions, did you feel like he broke the golden rule of 'show, don’t tell'? Like, a lot? (On purpose, of course.) The character traits, motivations, backgrounds etc. were all deconstructed – almost like a story plan rather than a story.
L: Yes, that's what I thought about the characters' motives and worldviews being exposed. I rather liked that actually, but I found it a little more wearing as the book went on.
S: It was like this almost clinical dissection in some ways.
L: Perhaps that was intentional, too.
S: Of course!
L: It reminds me of Tomas and his deconstruction of women.
S: Exactly! But then, it didn't feel so natural. Which leads me onto my next point...

Credit: Luis Mazon (www.mazonluis.com)
COULD WE RELATE TO IT?

S: On the one hand you have this in-depth authorial analysis of the characters, but on the other, there's this odd feeling of detachment from them. It's ironic, but I suppose thematically it makes sense (heaviness vs. lightness). Did you feel somewhat detached from the characters, too?
L: Yes, I did feel a little detached from the characters – they intrigued me, I enjoyed the dissection of their thinking and their past, I was fascinated by their facets, haha, but I didn't feel much emotional warmth for them. Even at their deaths, I wasn't particularly moved – I was more annoyed by the fact that I found out in the middle of the novel how they died, and then it just picked up again like normal.
S: Well said.
L: Did you, too, object to learning Tomas and Tereza's fate in the middle of the book?
S: Hmm, it threw me somewhat! Especially as it goes straight back to their story as though nothing has happened. I still don't really understand the value of knowing that at that stage, other than the reminder that everything is futile! You?
L: Exactly my thoughts. I did actually know the ending, having seen the movie, but nonetheless it was a bit jarring to have it casually thrown in there. Truly, what is the point? Unless, like you say, it's some kind of depressed modern writer device to underscore the futility and lightness of life, which means the author can just nonchalantly throw death in there. I don't know. I'm pondering.
S: Yeah, I think he's probably just messing with us. There are a few other 'meta' devices like that to remind you you're just reading a book/about fictitious characters.
L: Yeah. I'm not sure how I feel about 'meta', haha. I like to be absorbed and forget that I'm just reading.
S: I'm the same way... It's like, 'OK, I get it. You're being self-referential. Very clever. Can we get on with the story now?'
L: Exactly.
S: Going back to the inability to relate strongly to the characters, I think it connects to how authentic their thoughts and reactions feel, at least to me. I think the book really dug into the perverse nature of people's thoughts and sexuality, but I can't say I can relate to Tereza’s longing to see an ‘alien penis’ beside her birthmark. :/
L: Yes, I can't say they were entirely relatable to me, either. 😜 ...which is where my fascination comes from – it's interesting to see such different viewpoints. but not something I entirely connect with.
S: Right – which goes back to what we were saying about how the book's strength is ideological rather than emotional.
L: Yes, I really think that is the focus.
S: It was hard to fully enjoy for me on that basis, though. People are rarely so self-aware; I’d be more interested to read about people acting in sometimes irrational and foolish ways without always being able to articulate exactly why, with the motivation implicit or something to be drawn out and theorised about by the reader, which would be more reflective of real life and increase reader engagement. As things stand, everything is laid out for the reader – like the women's bodies before Tomas and his scalpel, as you mentioned.
L: So it was probably a deliberate technique. It would be interesting to see if some of his other works follow a similar pattern.
S: Yeah. There's this detachment and fragmentation – like the story is told in a non-linear fashion and parts get retold from different perspectives. You get more of a bird’s eye view of the protagonists’ lives rather than a sense of deep emotional involvement. Each chapter is more of a stage for the author’s philosophical musings about life rather than character/narrative-driven, but if that was the author's intention, as we suspect, then he succeeded on that count. But if you want more from your characters and narrative in terms of emotional depth and development, this probably isn't the book for you.
L: Totally agree, which is why I probably wouldn't choose to read books like this as my regular fodder, but as an occasional diversion – intriguing, a kinda refreshing change, mentally stimulating, but not emotionally satisfying.
S: (nods)

Juliette Binoche as Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
WHAT WE FOUND STRIKING

L: Tereza's bizarre dreams, for one.
S: Good one. The swimming pool and the trees where people were taken to be shot. They left an impression.
L: Yes, those two and the one later where she's dead and buried, and Tomas comes to see her and she resurrects each time and he wipes the dirt out of her eyes. Kinda macabre.
S: Yeah, in those parts there was a blurring of dreams and reality that could be disorienting, but in keeping with the focus on interiority.
L: Tomas's utter inability to change and be committed – I felt like he was so selfish, even though his perspective was laid out before me of course, haha.
S: Yeah, Tomas jerked Tereza around, but Tereza was also decidedly doormattish, which made her more frustrating to me!
L: Yes, I thought so, too, and that kinda hinged on her sense of fate. Something else that struck me was Tereza's mother – she seemed like a nightmare! Particularly that scene where she read out Tereza's diary to her dinner guests. Being a journal-keeper myself, that scene made my soul writhe.
S: That was heinous. I will say that the part focused on the dog, funnily enough, was the most emotional part of the book to me.
L: Yes. interesting. And the contrast between love for animals and love for people.
S: I whimpered and my partner looked over my shoulder and saw something about the dog limping on three legs. We stared aghast at each other – he knows I can't handle it when the animal gets hurt. But much more space was given to that than the mention of Tereza and Tomas' deaths.
L: Because human life is light and meaningless...!
S: Postmodernism! I suppose it brought them together in a strange way? It all comes back to heaviness (emotion, death) and lightness (an animal would be seen by some as a 'lesser' creature and relatively inconsequential to the plot).
L: Yes, it did. I felt that the end of the book, even if it was all filled with slightly depressing takes on life and relationships, had a little sense of hope. I felt that in their own way, they were happy at last. The countryside, the dog, the absence of mistresses, the laughter and dancing at the end. And yet, even then, there was sadness and happiness at once.
S: The two beds pushed together...
L: Yes!
S: The repetition of the motifs of the bed and the butterfly – Tereza's dream is replicated in reality, and recurrence = meaning. Yes, there was a heartening note of hope.
L: Yesss, that's so true!
S: So I think it could be argued that there is an uncharacteristic break from nihilism at the end?
L: Yes. And why? Perhaps for commercial purposes – to attempt to give the reader some sense of satisfaction?! Haha. Or perhaps to give some sense of hope that perhaps there is more meaning to life, despite the dark philosophical leanings of the rest of the book.
S: At least, that they make their own meaning, perhaps? Whether it's 'real' or not?
L: Yes, that could be another interpretation.
S: Speaking of striking moments, I did laugh out loud at some ludicrous parts. Tomas as the sexy window washer played out like a porn movie in one of the chapters.
L: Haha, true. For me, I didn't find any laugh-out-loud moments – I think I was too caught up in the mental acrobatics trying to soak up the philosophy, haha.
S: The 'alien penis'? No?
L: No, lol. At that point I was thinking more of her feelings that she might have been set up by the government. Horrors!

FINAL THOUGHTS

L: I don't know whether I enjoyed this book or not! I was intrigued by the style and the ideology, but I missed the emotional connection with the characters and the sense of being fully absorbed in the story.
S: Did you find it a bit of a slog?
L: Parts of it.
S: Hmm. I hear you.
L: But more because I've been so busy and because of the nature of the book, I didn't always feel like reading it, haha.
S: I felt the same way. I sometimes found myself not especially looking forward to picking it up.
L: Yes. honestly, my feeling towards this book overall is ambivalence – surprisingly to me. I enjoyed it, yet I was frustrated at things I also liked. Weird.
S: 'Ambivalence' is a good way of putting it. The book is intellectually intriguing. The more I consider the main themes, the more ways I find of interpreting it – everything is meaningful, so in that sense it's rich. But the imposition of authorial voice explaining everything takes you out of the story somewhat, which disrupts immersion, and character development/relatability is sacrificed for the strong philosophical inclination, so in that sense it left me feeling unsatisfied. Of course, you might say that this is perfect given the focus of the book: heaviness and lightness...
L: Yes, it depends how you look at it – and why you're reading it/what you're expecting from it!

FAVOURITE QUOTES

L: 'Tereza knew what happens during the moment love is born: the woman cannot resist the voice calling forth her terrified soul; the man cannot resist the woman whose soul thus responds to his voice.'

'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.'

S: ‘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.’

‘Loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away.’

'The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.’

‘When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.’

WE’D RECOMMEND THIS BOOK FOR...

L: Fans of postmodern writing and anyone who likes a bit of depth to their reading, to be challenged – since it's definitely not just fluffy easy reading. Fans of magical realism, too.
S: Yes, definitely! I'd also say those looking for a dose of philosophical/psychological depth in their writing, but aren't too concerned about narrative progression. The chapters are short and generally readable, so it's easy to pick the book up and chew on some of its ideas for a while.


NEXT MONTH'S BOOK CLUB TITLE

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

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