A Dimension of Beauty
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
By Milan Kundera
Transl. Michael Henry Heim
Every time I saw the cover of this book, I would think about Magritte (the bowler hat is so distinctive) and wonder if it was about him, and I would think, Oh, I should read that. Well, reader, I finally did.
And it wasn’t about Magritte. And it wasn’t expressly about bowler hats, although they certainly played a pivotal symbolic role. If you were writing a Wikipedia article, you would say that it was about two men and two women who have tangled sexual relationships and fractured identities, partially attributable to the Russian presence in what is today the Czech Republic, partially attributable to the pressures of Modern Society. But I’m not writing a Wikipedia article and so I can’t exactly say that.
I’m not sure what I can say, definitively, about this book’s content. It was free and beautiful and post-modern in its style, evasive in its plot direction, fulfilling in its character development. But it is hard to summarize, difficult to pin. The book begins with a rather esoteric discussion of a theory of Nietzsche’s and then it starts digressing about Beethoven and lightness and you start to wonder if you’re reading a novel after all. The characters are flighty and escape easy characterization; we are not sure what, if anything, motivates them; why does Tomas have such an unquenchable sexual appetite? Why does Tereza stick with him? Kundera does not supply easy answers to these questions.
All this elusiveness, however, only multiplied my love for this novel. Modernism, or at least whatever form of the genre Kundera has perfected here, plucks the strings of my heart. I love reading about people’s thoughts, coincidences, fleeting encounters on a city street, the subconscious–and Kundera provides all of this with deft and casual competence, a firm grasp of his own style.
I am quick to dislike authors, notably Dickens, for relying too much on fantastic coincidence to string their plots together. I like to read books about reality, where nothing is tidy. (Unfortunately, the general American public disagrees with me and keeps buying Brown and Clancy; they deal in coincidence.) Remarkably, Kundera deals in coincidence, too. But not like Dickens, Brown or Clancy. This is what he has to say about it:
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
Sometimes Kundera seems frightfully close to modern questions:
But, he said to himself, whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool?
And at other times, he is simply chasing the notions of beauty that we have held all along:
Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life.
One of my favorite techniques that Kundera used in the book (found generally in the chapters about Sabina and Franz) was his “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words.” He’d choose a word or a phrase, like “parades,” “cathedral” or “the old church in Amsterdam,” and then write about how Sabina’s and Franz’s conceptions differed. I thought it was a brilliant way to paint character and I wish I had thought of it first.
I know it’s not new (none of the books featured here really are), but this novel was deeply satisfying. It hit me in just the right way.