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Milan Kundera: Nesnesitelná lehkost byti (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

More erotic fun and games from Kundera. Tomas is a surgeon in Prague and, in 1968, before the Soviet invasion, he writes to the newspaper. After the Soviet invasion, however, he is asked to retract what he has written. He does not because he knows that the letter will be forever held against him. So he quits his job as a surgeon and becomes a window-washer in the hope that he will be so unimportant that the authorities won’t care about him.

But love and sex are Kundera’s themes. Tomas meets Tereza, a provincial waitress and they have an affair and get married (Tomas has been married before and has a son whom he never sees.) Sabina the painter, however, is his mistress and she is having an affair with Franz, a university professor who she may or may not dump. Tereza knows about Sabina and is, naturally, distressed. However, for Tomas, having affairs does not prevent his loving Tereza and it also enables him to control his life which he cannot control otherwise because of the political situation.

This is the novel that attracts all the plaudits, partially because of the film, with its very attractive cast of characters but probably it seems to be deeper and more meaningful than it, in fact, is. It starts off by quoting Nietzsche on the eternal return (and if you want to know more about the eternal return, read Mircea Eliade and not Nietzsche.) But quoting Nietzsche and indulging in various other philosophical musings, however interesting, does not make a great novel. Yes, the political situation in Czechoslovakia post-1968 was lousy and, yes, getting laid was probably a pretty good way of forgetting it but this does not make for great literature.

Publishing history

First published in Czech by Sixty-Eight Publishers in 1985 (first published in French in 1984)
First published in English by Harper & Row in 1984
Translated by Michael Henry Heim