The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 314 pages.
Read from April 11, 2019 to April 17, 2019.

Readers of this book either love it or hate and I would say that both opinions would be valid. The book covers a large scope of history specific to Czechoslovakia with manipulative, provocative, and dynamic characters. The majority of the book is set in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s and specifically during a time of political reform called the Prague Spring. Milan Kundera, the author, is of Czech origin but has lived in exile in France since 1971, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1981. Milan’s books were banned under the communist rule in Czechoslovakia and remained banned until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Readers have speculated if any of the characters in this book and many of Milan’s others are in any way autobiographical, to which Milan responded in a 1985 interview with New York Times,

“No character in my novels is a self-portrait, nor are any of my characters the portrait of a living person. I don’t like disguised autobiographies. I hate writers’ indiscretions.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being follows the lives of two men, two women, and one dog and how their lives intertwine during the years of political upheaval in Czechoslovakia. Tomas is a womanizing surgeon who marries the young and vulnerable Tereza, despite his inability (unwillingness) to be faithful. He claims to love Tereza more than anything but cannot give up seeing other women and battles his feelings for Tereza through the entire novel. Tomas even taunts her in her sleep by whispering in her ear his infidelities which causes Tereza to have horrendous and violent dreams about him with other women. Tereza is miserable and mad with jealousy but the two of them just can’t seem to be apart. The two of them have a delightful dog named Karenin who adores Tereza. One of Toma’s long-time lovers, Sabina has a similar nature to Tomas in how she treats her lovers but she has a turbulent history of her own that has made her that way. Franz is one of her lovers.  Each of the characters works their way through their turbulent relationships and personal faults as the country fills with the uproar of communism.

This prose of this book is undeniably poetic and beautiful giving it redeeming qualities long past its intriguing story, though not every reader has felt that way.

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

Many find Milan’s writing dry and dull, while others, myself included, find it to be brilliant. As I opened this review, readers either love or hate this book because is like an invitation into this place of history and into the lives of these people and if you’re not interested in either from the beginning the book will do little for you. The depth at which Milan exposes his characters is rich and at times unnervingly honest. He discusses love and personal faults in a way most would not find romantic but at least poetic and realistic, giving the topics their own unique sense of beauty and awe. Toma’s is not good to Tereza with his womanising ways but as the backstory on each character grows you find fault with each character and see how they tend to create their own dynamic miseries making you empathise with them all on one way or another.

I would recommend this book for those that enjoy literary fiction, history and historical fiction, philosophical or poetic prose (especially if you enjoyed Proust) or honest and flawed characters.

The Return by Joseph Conrad

There aren’t many authors that can write in a second-language as successfully as Conrad has.

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 75 pages.
Read on April 6, 2018.

The the last time I read Conrad I was in high school devouring Heart of Darkness, a book I should really put on my reread list. I was sauntering through the library looking for a short read to help me catch up on my reading goal when I came across this short novella.  Unlike the adventures in the Congo in Heart of Darkness this story focuses on the deeply psychological nuances of marriage.

Did you know?
Conrad was born in Poland in 1857 and English was not his native tongue. He did not speak it fluently until his twenties. There aren’t many authors that can write in a second-language as successfully as Conrad has.

It was a normal day for Alvan Hervey and as he arrived home from work he was expecting to find his wife at home, instead, he left with a letter. The letter explains that wife has left home for another man. Alvan is beyond surprised with this shocking betrayal and he starts in a downward spiral and examination of his relationship in which it becomes clear that Alvan is more concerned with appearances and what sort of shame this event will bring him.  As his frantic thoughts race, his wife interestingly returns home. She has come to tell Alvan that she has made a mistake and that her affair was never consummated. Alvan’s wife is distant and her return appears reluctant and more out of a sense of duty than anything.

“You are deceiving yourself. You never loved me. You wanted a wife – some woman – any woman that would think, speak and behave in a certain way – in a way that you approved. You loved yourself.”

The story is emotionally and psychologically driven and anyone that has ever been in an intense argument with their partner or spouse can appreciate the terse environment that is created in this extremely personal setting. This book was published in 1897 and would have offered a rare insight into the very private lives of people at the time.

By the time the novel ends, Alvan’s revelations and jealousy reaches a new height,

“Can you stand it?” and glared as if insane. Her eyes blazed, too. She could not hear the appalling clamour of his thoughts. She suspected in him a sudden regret, a fresh fit of jealousy, a dishonest desire of evasion. She shouted back angrily–

“Yes!”

He was shaken where he stood as if by a struggle to break out of invisible bonds. She trembled from head to foot.

“Well, I can’t!” He flung both his arms out, as if to push her away, and strode from the room.”

Alvan can’t cope with his own failings and revelations that there is no going back from this point in his marriage. The wife, while she has returned, has expressed her deepest needs that she feels were not being met and pointed out some harmful and hurtful truths that Alvan is having trouble digesting.

The story shows both sides of the conflict equally, the reader all seeing insight into the couple’s troubles. By the end, the reader appreciates the choices made by either side of the conflict. If only we had that kind of insight into our relationship disputes, hey?

This book is a good quick read and introduction to Conrad if you have not read him before. If you are looking for another good reason to read this book, you can also read it online for free!

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