The Favourites: Krysi Egan on The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Words by Krysi Egan

Published on November 20, 2011

I’m not going to lie; I love this book so much it hurts a little. Our courtship has been brief, a whirlwind if you please. But as is the case with the greatest and most profound love stories, The Unbearable Lightness of Being had me at hello.

I am ashamed to admit my intentions when first I pried it from its shelf were not entirely honourable. I was, at the time, amidst a painfully earnest pseudo intellectual phase and, having heard its title mentioned in passing, I made the fortuitous decision to have it for my own. Now, even after I have happily relinquished my faux intellectual pursuits (and stopped being a total douche), well, I hope The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I can grow old together. What can I say, you cant fight a love like ours.

Essentially, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an attempt to explain the lives and behaviors of four really unlikeable characters in Prague’s Czechoslovak Communist period. Tomas (a brilliant and gifted surgeon who spends his down time as an incorrigible sex addict) is married to Tereza (a young and fragile ex waitress whose desperation to escape her ridiculous and damaging mother led her into the arms of her womanizing husband), and is also having an affair with most of the women in Prague, but particularly Sabrina (a smoldering and intoxicating painter whose life is defined by her ability to betray, and coloured by her hatred of kitsch and confinement), who falls in love with Franz (an idealistic, married Geneva professor tortured by his betrayal of his wife despite being in love Sabrina, who he inaccurately idealizes as a liberal and tragic nonconformist).

Through a series of unfortunate and entwining circumstances, lovers spats, trysts, and failures, Milan Kundera uses Nietzsche’s  theory of heaviness and Parmenide’s concept of lightness to explain the exhausting, entirely human, and timeless search for meaning in ones life- if in fact it can be achieved at all.

Ok, I’m not going to attempt to explain every aspect of this book. To be completely honest I still haven’t figured it all out. But if you strip back the overall philosophical dichotomy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being  that can at times cause a sensation not unlike a brain freeze the really beautiful thing about this novel is the way Kundera portrays these seriously flawed characters, who are really all as bad as each other, with such incredible grace that their imperfections become their most intriguing and relatable qualities.

Kundera is generous enough to afford each character the opportunity to explain their less than perfect selves with a scathing and poetic honesty that produces a dazzling array of achingly relatable and soul wrenching musings. There were times when I was quite literally so in love with the sentences on the page I would find randoms to read them to (To my gardener Michael, I’m really sorry mate). I even found myself excusing Tomas’ infidelity when he delivers the line,

“The brain appears to possess a special area…called Poetic Memory… that makes our lives beautiful. From the time he met Tereza, no woman had the right to leave the slightest impression on that part of his brain.”

I think the defining quality of The Unbearable Lightness of Being  for me is really the timelessness of the story and its characters. The novel reads like a social commentary on lives of a set of really fucked up, deeply unique people all searching for the meaning and fighting that unbearable, lightness of being.

Basically what I am trying to say is that this book is a testament to why we spend agonising hours staring at blank pages trying to find the words, swear a bit (a lot), maybe cry a little, and then write, rewrite, and rewrite until it all finally resembles in some way the genius we had envisaged. Because we are all hoping that at some point we will deliver as much of ourselves in our work as Kundera has in this.

Let me know if this book somehow doesn’t manage to etch itself on your soul, I really won’t mind explaining to you why it should.