Thursday, March 27, 2008

the last book I read

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera.

I don't like leaving books half-read; once I've started I'll generally plough on to the end even if it turns out not to be as great as I thought it'd be. There are very few books on my shelves that I've had a go at and not finished - as far as I can remember (as the initial attempt was 10+ years ago in each case) they were all abandoned temporarily to go and read something else (probably a new Stephen King or something) and then never returned to, i.e. not just thrown back on the shelves because I couldn't get on with them. A quick scan reveals three, in fact, and they are Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. Or at least they were, because I've tidied up that last loose end now. By an odd coincidence, one of the principal characters in TULOB (as I'll refer to it from here on) owns a dog which she calls Karenin after Anna's husband (though, oddly, it's a female dog).

A bit of background: Kundera is from the former Czechoslovakia and was involved in the Prague Spring of 1968, eventually relocating to France in 1975, where he has lived ever since. Unsurprisingly his experiences are reflected in his novels, this one for instance. Quite a bit of it is set in 1968 and plays out against a background of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion, though it's highly non-chronological and jumps around all over the place as well.

The story: Tomas is a doctor, Tereza is a photographer. They meet, fall in love and marry, though Tomas continues to sleep with other women, most notably his mistress Sabina, an artist. Sabina in turn is involved with Franz, an academic. Their bed-hopping and various other activities are really just a jumping-off point for various philosophical musings, most prominently (as it's the inspiration for the novel's title): if we only have one life, does anything we do really matter? If so, shouldn't we just do what we want to all the time? On the other hand, if we do only have one life, isn't anything we do so insignificant as to be futile?

Any book which sets up its characters just to illustrate a philosophical point is going to have a problem, particularly when the authorial voice intrudes as often as it does here:
Tomas's son belongs in the same category. Let me call him Simon. (He will be glad to have a Biblical name, like his father's).
And that problem is making you believe enough in the characters to care when good or bad things happen to them (like, for instance, the oppressive workings of the Communist regime - both Orwellian and Kafkaesque, you might say, depending on how pretentious you are - and also the author killing most of them off in various ways at the end of the book). I'd say Kundera just about manages it; I was in no danger of abandoning the book halfway through this time.

A more wide-ranging (and longer) critical essay is available here: the book was also made into a well-regarded film starring recent Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis and the lovely Juliette Binoche. Never seen it though.

Let me start a new way of ending these posts - themes referenced in other books in this series:

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