books & life

I’m currently reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Apparently it’s an international bestseller. And apparently it belongs in the “Classics” section at the local library. After reading about 100 pages, I’d say it’s definitely good, but I’m not sure about the classic part. I can’t find the Newberry medal anywhere…

Basically, it starts out philosophical, then pulls in the story of Tomas and Tereza, a Czech couple. It talks about their meeting, first from his perspective, then hers. Throughout their relationship, he maintains several mistresses, principal among them Sabina, whose own story comes out later. There is a lot of philosophical reflection on Tomas and Tereza’s relationship, how so much of who she is comes from her mother, etc. It’s very interesting.

There was one part that I found especially relevant, as it’s a thought I’ve had (though far less eloquently put) as I lose relationships over time:

While people are fairly young and the musical composition of their lives is still in its opening bars, they can go about writing it together and exchange motifs…but if they meet when they are older…their musical compositions are more or less complete, and every motif, every object, every word means something different to each of them.

This statement comes about after Sabina and Tomas’s extramarital relations have ended and she’s emigrated to Geneva, Switzerland, to escape the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. Tomas emigrates, too, but he ends up returning home to be with Tereza in Prague. Anyway, Sabina enters a similar relationship with another married man named Franz, who Sabina tries to find happiness with, but keeps comparing to Tomas and her past life.

At one point, in Franz’s presence, she silently puts on a bowler hat and strips down to her undergarments. At first, Franz is intrigued, but her demeanor is different from anything he’s seen. The whole scenario is unknown to him. So he begins to squirm and takes the hat from her head. To her, she is reliving a moment with Tomas, one that they shared when she was dressed just that way years before. She is caught up in the memory, the meaning of it, and Franz is simply uncomfortable because of how little it means to him.

There’s a much longer section on it in the book itself, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

I think about this very thing when my relationships end. I am well aware that people are getting married later in life these days, and in many ways it’s for the best, because they are more mature and have had more of a chance to develop their own identities before becoming a single unit with another person. But I still fear that the individuality will be too great, that when I’m 25, 30, 35, I will still be looking for someone, and while there may be someone else out there looking, too, he’ll have built up a history, a lifetime of memories that don’t involve me. The fear is greater because I have so few memories of my own. I will be keyed up to create new ones with him – but will he be satisfied with only those of his past? Will past relationships have jaded him to the point where he’s loath to share so much with another person?

I know this fear is, for the most part, unfounded. And I am young – far too young to be concerned about this. But books tend to overwhelm my senses and suck me in (much like a compelling movie that goes on for days instead of hours), so I find it difficult to ignore when the print echoes my precise thoughts about life. It’s quite amazing, really. I leave you with another like-minded excerpt from The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. “Co-incidence” means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven…But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.

Early in the novel that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas [Anna Karenina], Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition…may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.

They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.

It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences…but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

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