Kundera and Kitsch

John Bayley

  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, translated by Henry Heim
    Faber, 314 pp, £9.50, May 1984, ISBN 0 571 13209 X

There is always comedy in the ways in which we are impressed by a novel. It can either impress us (if, that is, it is one of the very good ones) with the sort of truths that Nietzsche, Kafka and Dostoevsky tell us, or with the truths that Tolstoy and Trollope tell us. To the first kind we respond with amazement and delight, awe even. ‘Of course that’s it! Of course that’s it!’ The second kind of truths are more sober, more laboriously constructed, more ultimately reassuring. They are the truths necessary for fiction, and therefore necessary for life. The first kind contribute brilliantly not to life itself but to what seems an understanding of it. And that too is necessary for us, or at least desirable, and enjoyable.

Milan Kundera’s latest novel is certainly one of the very good ones. It is in fact so amazingly better than anything he has written before that the reader can hardly believe it, is continually being lost in astonishment. In manner and technique it is not much different from his previous books, but the story here at last really compels us, and so do the hero and heroine. Kundera’s great strength has always been his wit and intelligence, and his particular way with these assets. He was a Nietzschean truth-teller rather than a Tolstoyan one. But this new novel dissolves my distinction while at the same time drawing attention to it. Its impact is considerable. Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer.

Salman Rushdie described The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, which appeared in English in 1980, as ‘a whirling dance of a book’, and went on to bury it under all the chic epithets, sad, obscene, tender, wickedly funny, wonderfully wise, ‘a masterpiece full of angels, terror, ostriches and love’. It was not as bad as that. But Kundera was like a man let loose among all the literary fashions of the West, grabbing this and that, intoxicated by the display patterns of freedom. On the publication of the book the Czech Government revoked his citizenship. Both this decision and the book itself followed logically from Kundera’s early novels and stories, like The Joke, published in Prague during the Prague Spring. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (the title is shorter in Czech and sounds better) used every device of French and American ‘fictiveness’, and its pornography, though cheerful, was so insistent in repudiating any shadow of Iron Curtain puritanism that it now seems as didactic and determined as the evolutions of Komsomol girls in red gymslips.

Unfair maybe, but circumstances made the book weightless, cosmopolitan. Despite its title, there is nothing weightless about The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In one sense, indeed, it satirises its predecessor. Nor could it possibly have been written by a Frenchman or an American. It is deeply, centrally European, both German and Slav, as Nietzsche himself was both Pole and German. Prague is the centre of this Europe, and with this book we are right back in Kafka’s city, where neither Kafka nor Kundera can be published. None the less, Kundera’s intelligence has quietly forsaken contemporary Western fashion and gone back to its deep roots, in Europe’s old repressions and nightmares, to a time and an art long before the cinema and the modern happening.

Both in Poland and in Czechoslovakia the cinema represented a method of escape into the modernity which the Communist system rejected and forbade. Kundera was a professor of film technology and his pupils produced the new wave in the Czech cinema. His work, even the present novel, has been influenced by film techniques, but they have here been thoroughly absorbed into the forms of traditional literature, and Kundera now seems positively old-fashioned in the way in which he combines the authorial presence with the ‘story’. The author is the purveyor of Nietzschean truth, but the story is of the Tolstoyan kind. Lightness of being is associated with the author’s voice, with the cinema and sex, with irresponsibility and definition, with politics. Weight or heaviness of being, on the other hand, is associated with love and fidelity, suffering, chance, fiction, form and content (‘The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness’), death.

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