Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I found myself thinking about Milan Kundera’s modern classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being today.

No reason really, it just came to mind.

I read this a few years ago because I’d heard so much about it, and because I’d enjoyed Kundera’s Ignorance with its themes of memory, loss, and homesickness.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s novel of love and politics in his homeland — communist-run Czechoslovakia — between 1968 and the early 1980s.

It’s a must-read, in my opinion.

Click here to read an excerpt of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and here to read an excerpt of Ignorance.

I didn’t read either of his books for book clubs but I think they would be fascinating to discuss. In fact, I think I’ll suggest one or more of his books the next time I’m supposed to lead the discussion!

Here are some discussion questions for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in case your looking for some for your book club:

  1. What kinds of being carry the attribute of lightness? How is the “lightness of being” of the novel’s title presented? In what ways is it “unbearable”? What is the difference between “the sweet lightness of being” that Tomas enjoys in Zurich, after Tereza’s return to Prague, and “the unbearable lightness of being”?
  2. How does Nietzsche’s myth of eternal return, with which Kundera opens his book, function in the novel? What does Kundera mean when he refers to “the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return”? How does what he calls the unbearable burden of eternal return contrast with the “splendid lightness” of our daily lives?
  3. How would you describe the three central relationships of the novel–Tereza and Tomas, Tomas and Sabina, Sabina and Franz? How do they embody Kundera’s primary concerns and themes?
  4. In what ways does Kundera explore what he calls “the irreconcilable duality of body and soul, that fundamental human experience.” In what ways does he show this duality to be fundamental?
  5. Both Tereza and Tomas repeatedly think of the series of fortuitous events that brought them together. What is the rule of fortuity, chance, and coincidence in their lives and the lives of others? What does Kundera mean when he writes, “Chance and chance alone has a message for us”?
  6. In what ways may Sabina’s description of her dual-level paintings–“On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth”–apply to every aspect of the characters’ lives and relationships?
  7. What meanings and importance do each of the main characters ascribe to fidelity and betrayal? In what instances, for each character, do fidelity and betrayal have either positive or negative qualities?
  8. Kundera insists that “the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise.” What visions or versions of paradise are presented in the novel? By whom? How does each vision/version of paradise affect the lives of its enthusiasts and the lives of others?

And here are some discussion questions for Ignorance:

  1. As in his previous novels, Kundera isn’t content to merely tell a story; he also comments on it, via digressions on themes ranging from history to etymology and music. What is the effect of this method? Does it emotionally distance you from the narrative and characters or cause you to see them in a different light? Would you describe Ignorance as a realist novel?
  2. When her Parisian friend Sylvie urges her to go home to her country, Irena replies “You mean this”–meaning Paris — “isn’t my home anymore?” This exchange suggests that “home” may be a relative phenomenon, that today’s home may not be tomorrow’s. How is this theme developed elsewhere in Ignorance? Can any of Kundera’s characters be said to have a true home, or is home in this book always changeable, unreliable, and perhaps even illusory? And is going home a guarantee of happiness?
  3. Even as Ignorance questions the permanence of home, it also raises doubts about the authenticity of the self, as in this moment when Irena glimpses her reflection in a department store mirror: “The person she saw was not she, it was somebody else, or…it was she but she living a different life.” [p. 31] How would you sum up this novel’s view of identity? Have Kundera’s characters chosen their identities or have their identities been imposed on them by outside forces?
  4. Early in the novel Kundera draws a series of correspondences and oppositions: between homesickness, nostalgia, and ignorance; between the longing for a place and the longing for a vanished past or a lost love. How does he develop these themes? Is Irena’s nostalgia, for example, merely an expression of ignorance? Conversely, what is the reason for Josef’s “nostalgic insufficiency?” [p. 74] When do these characters confuse homesickness with other types of longing, and with what consequences?
  5. What is the significance of Ignorance‘s frequent references to The Odyssey? Do any events in this novel parallel those in Homer’s epic? Is Josef’s devotion to his deceased wife, for example, meant to recall Odysseus’s devotion to Penelope? Compare the way Kundera uses The Odyssey in this book to the way Joyce uses it in Ulysses.
  6. “Our century is the only one in which historic dates have taken such a voracious grip on every single person’s life.” [p.11] In what ways are the characters in Ignorance shaped by history and their personal destinies determined by it? Are they ever able to resist history? Does Kundera’s view of historical forces hold out any hope for the freedom and dignity of the individual?
  7. How would you describe Irena’s and Josef’s relationships with their families and old friends? Why are these so often marked by suspicion, incomprehension or outright hostility? In contrast, Irena and Josef seem to share a frictionless instant intimacy, even though they are little more than strangers. Is Kundera suggesting that the intimacy of strangers is somehow superior to the stifling, conventional closeness that prevails within most families? Are some of the characters’ relationships more genuine than others?
  8. What role is played by Irena’s friend Milada who, unbeknown to Irena, was once Josef’s girlfriend? Does Josef’s past treatment of Milada predict his future behavior toward Irena? Is he morally responsible for Milada’s mutilation or has Milada merely sacrificed herself for a sentimental fantasy? What do you make of Kundera’s use of coincidence? Does he seem to view it the way Irena does — as an expression of fate?
  9. Are you surprised by the sexual encounter between Irena’s mother and her boyfriend? Does it strike you as a betrayal of Irena, who at the time is betraying Gustav with Josef? Is Josef himself guilty of betraying Irena by his silence? How would you characterize this novel’s attitude toward sex?

I should probably pick up some of Kundera’s other books — any suggestions?

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One response to “Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being

  1. I loved Kundera’s The Unbearable lightness of being. what a amazing take on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return.
    nicely framed discussion questions. thanks.

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