Monday, January 28, 2008

Thoughts upon rereading Unbearable Lightness of Being

This is perhaps the sixth or seventh time I’ve read Unbearable Lightness, and each time new things rise to the surface of the book. This reading was different, however, because I’m older, a parent, and a have a failed marriage behind me.

In the past I’d always looked upon Sabina as the intriguing force behind the book. She is, after all, the beautiful and mystifying artist, and she draws men to her particularly because she is light and “free.” On a side note, the fact that Lena Olin played her in the film helps craft this attraction.

On this reading, however, Tereza rose to fore. Because of her weight, she becomes the more complex character. She rides her own quandaries through her ill-fated attempt to have an affair and through her fears and anxieties, and she begins to validate her own self-blame by the end. Until she realizes what Tomas realized when he had an epiphany about her trembling hands and until they begin to communicate. In fact, it is remarkably touching when Tomas finally opens up to her in the closing pages about his son and about his love for her. At that point, it is clear that the journey they’ve made through the book has changed them both, and finally brings us into that beautiful moment of happiness when a night-time butterfly flutters out of a light as the strains of music rise from the cafe.

Tomas is still a cad, of course. But he is a complex cad. In fact, his refrain from Beethoven of Es muss sein! ends up as both a rationalization for his philandering and for his change. As a misguided rationalization for pursuing all women, it grows from that supposed need to understand the millionth part; as a reason for change, it is part of his acceptance that his life with Tereza must be—and must be just with Tereza.

I have admired Kundera over the years for the ways in which he orchestrates his work, but I see even more clearly how the closing pages here finally pull all of the small and large ideas he has laid out together.