The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Book cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel by Milan Kundera. It follows the stories of 4 characters as they navigate life and love.

Tomáš and Tereza

Tomáš and Tereza meet in a café during one of her visits to Prague. Ten days later, she visits him in Prague and stays over when she falls ill. This is extraordinary because although Tomáš is a womanizer, he does not let women sleepover. When she is better, he sends her home and is conflicted about his feelings for her. He thinks that he might be in love with her.

Tomáš doesn’t take any actions to invite Tereza back into his life, but he is happy when she shows up in Prague, claiming to be on business. From the size of her suitcase, he discerns that she is there to stay, and helps her build a life in Prague. He got her an apartment and introduced her to one of his mistresses, Sabina, who helps her get a job. Tereza and Sabina also become friends.

The Nature of Attachment

Tomáš was divorced and had a son but gave up contact with his child and parents after the divorce. He was happy to free himself of attachments. But Tereza quietly builds herself into his life. When she sleeps, she holds on to his hand, an act that Tomáš uses as proof that their relationship transcends the physical and involves love.

Tereza learns of Tomáš’s affairs by looking through his things. She found a love letter to him from Sabina and has dreams about the fantasy Sabina shared in the letter. When she tells Tomáš the dream, he learns that she has been looking through his things. She initially denied it when he confronted her, but then she admitted it.

Thomas stops Tereza from suicide after she finds out about his affairs. She caught her father with another woman as a child and never told her mother about it, but the trauma stayed with her.

When Tereza and Tomáš marry, he continues his affairs. It hurts Tereza when she finds out, and he explains that his affairs are purely physical while he is in love with her. She tried to accept this, but it brings her great pain.

Escape to Switzerland

When the Communists take over Czechoslovakia, Tomáš is in danger because of an opinion piece he’s written criticizing the Czechoslovak Communists. He and Tereza escape to Zurich.

Tereza was incredibly unhappy. She had no job except waiting for Tomáš and spending time with the dog, Karenin. She’d taken photos of the political situation during the Soviet uprising in Prague, but her photos were considered too bleak and passé when she tried to get a job in Zurich. This left her with lots of time to despair over Tomáš’s affairs. Sabina had previously moved to Switzerland, and Tomáš rekindled their relationship.

Back to Prague

Eventually, Tereza decides to leave Tomáš and return to Prague. Tomáš initially luxuriates in his freedom. But then he is haunted by Teresa and decides to return to Prague to be with her. Teresa and Karenin welcome Tomáš home. They will not be able to leave Czechoslovakia again as the borders are now closed.

Tomáš, the Window Washer

In order to keep his job as a doctor, Tomáš has to retract his previous opinion piece. When he refuses, he is first demoted to work in a clinic as a general practitioner instead of a surgeon, but eventually, he loses that job and becomes a window washer.

Tomáš enjoys being a window washer. Teresa works nights at a bar, and he works days, so that gives him lots of free time for his rendezvous. Some of his old patients meet him with expensive drinks and there is no shortage of women, some of which he meets at work.

Tereza’s Exploration

Trying to understand Tomáš’ argument that the physical is different from love, Tereza has an affair with a man that she meets while working at the bar. After that, she starts to worry that he is from the secret police. Instead of easing her mind or helping her understand Tomáš, she becomes even more haunted.

Tomáš’s Challenges

Tomáš also has some strange experiences at work, particularly with one of the women he meets. He has a standard method of being dominant, but this woman flips the game on him, and he is at a loss.

As time goes on, the gifts from his former patients stop. But then his son and a newspaper editor seek him out to join them in opposing the regime. In the end, he escapes it all by moving to the countryside with Tereza.

Move to the Countryside

Tereza And Tomáš move to the countryside, leaving their Prague adventures behind. There, Tereza rekindles her love for animals and Tomáš has no distractions from their marriage. Karenin is also content with the change, but then she develops cancer. Although Tomáš operates on her to remove the lump, she succumbs to her illness.

Sabina and Franz

Sabina portrayed her own struggles and the struggles of Czechoslovakia in her paintings. She is a talented painter and socially connected to other Czechoslovak dissidents. She meets Franz and becomes his mistress. Franz was an academic who fell in love with Sabina. Meanwhile, Sabina missed the playfulness of Tomáš.

Instead of staying with Franz, Sabina moves to Paris. Franz finds a new mistress, one of his students. He and his wife carry on their separate lives, and when she buries him when he dies after a protest in Bangkok.

From Paris, Sabina moves to America. She lives with an elderly couple who admire her work. She learns of Tereza And Thomas’ death through a letter from his son.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This book explores the nature of love and marriage in a backdrop of political upheaval. It is not expressly about the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, but it is set in that time frame and the political backdrop affects the characters’ choices.

Tereza and Sabina’s upbringings contribute to the way they see the world. They’ve built their ideas about relationships, sex, and love from their early experiences growing up.

I listened to the audiobook version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The story is told by each of the main characters as well as by a narrator who asks the big questions, of life and death, fate, duty, darkness, and lightness. The philosophical dimensions of the book would have been easier to explore with a written copy; it’s much harder to go back and look up details in an audiobook, and I haven’t read the philosophical texts from which this book draws its symbolism. Also, with audiobooks, my mind sometimes wanders. This time, the mind wandering was less about the story and more about everything else going on in the world.

One idea I made note of was “es muss sein”, the German concept of “it must be”, presented in the book as a motif from one of Beethoven’s songs. It was this concept that Tomáš considered in deciding to follow Tereza back to Prague, but in the book, he goes back and forth between labeling his relationship with Tereza as fate or chance.

The idea of “kitsch” also showed up in the book, but I don’t recall how it was used in the story. I looked it up and found this. The opposition to “totalitarian kitsch” is an idea that I recently encountered in the Czech Republic. In fact, The Unbearable Lightness of Being has a strong sense of place and is firmly set in Czechoslovak culture and intellectual thought of its time.

The audiobook is short at less than 10 hours, but there is some heavy content mixed in with the light. The writing carries those themes, as the story also does.

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