As I mentioned in the comments to Esther's post on John Berger, I'm afraid to say that I have limited patience with (certain brands of) literary postmodernism. There seems to be something rather smug and self-indulgent and unnecessary about it. I'm already aware that fiction is, y'know, not real, but I'm uncertain why the author would feel the need to keep intruding to point this out (as opposed to, say, getting on with the fiction). Self-examination and narratorial playfulness are splendid things, but I prefer mine woven into the fabric of a novel - through a dodgy narrator, say - that would hold together even without them. Enough showboating already. "Look, mum, I made this up!" What do you want, a pat on the head?
Enter Milan Kundera, with The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), a book I've been putting off reading for - I feared - precisely the reasons outlined above. That, and the fact that the people I know who swear by it aren't exactly cheery types. Could I survive a bleakness-of-existence novel in which the author keeps butting in to remind me that things are so meaningless, he actually invented all of this?
I like being wrong. Well, okay, that's a lie: I don't. But what I do like is when books I hadn't anticipated liking turn out to be completely wonderful. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, you see, while the postmodern observations do grow irritating at times (please, please stop telling me how to interpret your characters) the preoccupation with subjectivity and fiction-as-construct is integral to the work as a whole.
The novel is set primarily in Czechoslovakia (as it was then), in and around the pivotal year of 1968. Rather, Kundera's interest lies in what shapes the way that people perceive the world and those around them. In this case, how the events, climate and fallout from the Prague Spring - the all-pervading tension, the damaging lack of privacy - impact upon the city's inhabitants, set alongside a matrix of other, everyday factors - from painful childhood memories to apparently inconseqential coincidences. To this end, we dip in and out of the lives, loves and vast insecurities of an interconnected group of Czechs: waitress and sometime photographer Tereza, doctor Tomas, artist Sabina, and academic Franz, together with their various relatives and lovers.
Kundera is frank about the impossibility of creating 'real' characters. They are not - can not be -psychological studies, but are instead extrapolations of particular emotional states (as Kundera puts it, "my own unrealised possibilities"):
It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived. They were not born of a mother's womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying 'Einmal ist keinmal'. Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach.
Yet just as the characters are born of a single idea, whether profound or banal, which the author develops into a rounded creation through his imaginative construction of their personality, so too are the characters' impressions of each other created from little things, rendered large and significant by their own conceptual and experiental framework. When Tereza first meets Tomas, for example:
'Co-incidence' means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza would never have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched.
The motif of Beethoven recurs at several points in the narrative. It is with a refrain from the composer's final quartet (es muss sein, "it must be") in mind that Tomas makes a life-changing decision. The same line is used to frame authorial musings upon lightness/freedom and weight/responsibility. Initially, it is an expression of the heaviness of duty, a phrase with an inbuilt sigh: it must be. Later on, however, Kundera turns this pronouncement on its head with an anecdote about what really inspired Beethoven to write the words - a joke at the expense of someone who owed him money. (This, incidentally, is the point where I began to truly love the book: Kundera poking fun at his own bleak portentousness while still making a point significant to his theme - about how a different perspective, or a simple misunderstanding, can turn a jest into metaphysics (or vice versa), and how meaning resides in the mind that perceives).
On one level, this sort of conceit is just authorial sleight-of-hand, as Kundera acknowledges in a brief tangent about Anna Karenina:
This symmetrical composition - the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end - may seem quite 'novelistic' to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as 'fictive', 'fabricated', and 'untrue to life' into the word 'novelistic'. Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
Nevertheless, the very artificiality strikes at the heart of what Kundera seeks to achieve. For the individual human mind imbues events with meaning and pattern, quite divorced from objective reality: it creates wholly personal schemas without any intrinsic, independent 'truth'.
This is clear with every point-of-view switch between faithful Tereza and philandering Tomas. It is made explicit in the section dealing with the relationship between Sabina and Franz, where straightfoward narrative is interspersed with short chapters organised into a mock 'Dictionary of Misunderstood Words'. It explores the emotional and experiential gulf between the two, through a series of vignettes taken from their time together (under subheadings like 'Cemetery', and 'The Beauty of New York'), in which their wildly differing interpretations are set side-by-side - but, of course, never adequately communicated. When her friends in Paris ask her to join them on a march in protest at the oppressive regime in her homeland, Sabina - remembering the parades of enforced unity she was once forced to participate in, back in Prague - can imagine nothing more repugnant:
She would have liked to tell them that behind Communism, Fascism, behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.
At every step, Kundera demonstrates how imperfectly two people may comprehend each other - how a mental world can be constructed such that the same incident may have completely divergent meanings through two sets of eyes, or an act can take on a whole new significance when repeated with another person.
This, then, is where the postmodern style intersects so neatly with the author's concerns, impacting the story and themes as well as the narrative technique. The story centres largely around the relationships between his characters: how they interact with and perceive each other (and how both the outward and the inward reaction can reinforce or challenge the other). At issue is in the meeting point between mental, emotional and physical action: the way that we construct ourselves and each other, the way that the tiniest coincidences or the greatest misunderstandings can leave an equal mark on a relationship. Every relationship is founded on metaphor and divergent comprehensions, and vulnerable:
Perhaps not. Probably not. But the fragile edifice of their love would certainly come tumbling down. For that edifice rested on the single column of her fidelity, and loves are like empires: when the idea they are founded on crumbles, they, too, fade away.
The novel is a map of the contingencies and intangibles behind every individual thought and deed. It is artificial, to be sure, but also reflective - if not of reality, then certainly of the way human beings conceptualise reality. Fiction is a perfect way to explore the facade and its disconnect, because we impose these frameworks upon our own lives, everyday, in our efforts to make sense of things.
Einmal ist keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.
The tragi-comedy in all this, to Kundera, is how blindly we act - unable to tell what is right, or advisable, or preferable, because the nature of the world means that we can never see consequences until afterwards. He both emphasises and offsets this by structuring the novel such that we continually return to the same events, layering more detail and levels of interpretation in each time. The end result cannot be changed - but, with an altered perspective, we might be able to see it differently.
History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.