Monday, August 3, 2009
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
I'm going to miss picking up books in Europe. The secondhand stores are great -- thank you for this one, Oxfam of Dublin -- and in non-English-speaking countries, the selections are manageable. It's great to be back, but where do I start when I walk into a bookstore here? (Actually, most of the books I read for a while are likely to be borrowed -- those of you who have been giving me suggestions, care to pass along a copy for a while?)
A dear friend (who I've mentioned here before) recommended -- no, insisted -- that I read this book, and she stressed it more than just about any other book she's ever suggested to me. (And we've discussed a lot of books. Thanks for this one, C!) She writes about it briefly over on her blog, where she notes one of her favorite lines:
"The individual 'I' is what differs from the common stock, that is, what cannot be guessed at or calculated, must be unveiled, uncovered, conquered."
This book has a lot of ideas. My friend notes that Kundera's book is "Not a feel good reading, but one that makes you think and reconsider what you thought about coincidence and purpose." Which it definitely does. It would be hard to say that this book has any singular overriding idea -- and she really hits on one of the big ones -- but I'd have to say that it generally deals with "being" (duh), and how being is very much an individual experience. We can exist together, as neighbors, as lovers, as enemies, as pets and owners... but we cannot be together. Really, "we" cannot be. Only "I" can.
Being is something -- a burden, an experience, a journey, whatever -- that we must have alone, as individuals. Only "I" can fully understand "I's" being, and although that being is defined in large part by interactions with others, it's a very personal concept. Others can indeed unveil, uncover, and conquer part of the "I" (or they can try to), and that too is a large part of being -- revealing oneself to others, trying to protect oneself from others, and attempting to uncover the being of others. That's what allows us to exist with other people, and what makes being both light and utterly unbearable.
Really, this is one hell of a book. It's not meant for reading on the beach, and it's not much for a linear plot. But boy, it's good. Just don't let the discussion of Nietzsche in the first couple pages bog you down.