The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Breathtaking Incursions in Time
"Its impact is considerable." John Bayley says, reviewing Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the London Review of Books. "Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer." Jonathan Coe, writing on Kundera in 2015, looked back and asked, "why did those [Kundera] books seem so urgent, so indispensable at the time? Was it because they coincided fleetingly with the zeitgeist, or do they embody something more robust and enduring? How will history judge them? His reputation will rest, it seems fair to say, on the three great "middle period" novels: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality." (Guardian) Bayley, however, interestingly suggests, putting aside the importance of Kundera's reputation, "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."
Bayley sees that Kundera would often write books that fell into the first category, but reckons The Unbearable Lightness of Being is superior to anything that came before (like Life is Elsewhere and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) because it manages to convey plenty of the Tolstoyan truths as well. We could see this as Bayley's conservative position: that he likes The Unbearable Lightness of Being so much because it resembles so many other novels in its capacity to make us feel for the characters. So many bad books do the same that this wouldn't be much of an achievement, and so many great books don't that we might wonder whether it's much of a good in itself. But The Unbearable Lightness of Being is fascinating: it seems to retreat from manipulating us into feeling, but then advances deeper into that feeling as a consequence.
The best place to look for this advance-retreat is in the death of the central couple, announced to us less than halfway through the book while Kundera focuses on another character, Tomas's former lover Sabina. She has long since left Prague, has been living in Geneva, Paris and the US, and while in Paris she receives a letter from Tomas's son telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died. It is a startling moment of prolepsis (of flashforward) and at the same time an impressive example of refocalization (of changing the narrative focal point). Tomas and Tereza are very much alive to us at the stage of the book and will continue to be so for the rest of it, but Sabina has become temporarily our central character, so this is seen as very sad news rather than an obviously tragic event. One reason why it startles us rests on it being an aside: Tomas and Tereza are no longer central to Sabina's life but peripheral reminders of all that she has lost as she travels from place to place, moves from lover to lover. It is a breathtaking incursion of time as much as it happens to be a plot revelation of death, which is partly why Kundera manages to advance and retreat from feeling simultaneously. We don't only care about Tomas and Tereza's demise, we also feel for Sabina's loss, with Tomas and Tereza significant in an important period of her own life, and we also muse over what time itself means to us as the novel passes through years in the characters' lives without 'reducing' itself to a chronological causality. It doesn't assume that we will be moved by virtue of ready identification; instead, Kundera moves us with its opposite: reflexive identification, a point we will address shortly. When Kundera says, admiring Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities, "as opposed to Mann's work, in Musil everything becomes theme (existential questioning). If everything becomes theme, the background disappears and, as in a cubist painting, there is nothing but foreground. It is this abolition of the background that I consider to be the structural revolution of the novel Musil brought about." (Testaments Betrayed) Kundera sees it as a much less obtrusively original novel than Joyce's Ulysses, but no less original for that. Musil gave to the novel its meditative possibilities, with Kundera perhaps aware that while meditation has constantly been present in the novel, it cannot usually exist without the full context of character and story. By suggesting that it is the theme and not the story that is most important, Kundera wonders if it is possible to write a book which possesses characters who reflect the author's pre-occupations as readily as the characters' own. If we are so moved by Tomas and Tereza by the end of the novel this isn't that they die at the end of it (they have died long before then on the page) but that Kundera has explored thematically the idea of death that the characters are contained by.
Hence to the problem of what we are calling reflective identification. If Kundera is seen as a post-modern author to some and a modernist to others, this may rest partly on the way the words reflective and reflexive are relevant to his work. Many post-WW II novelists are reflexive indeed: Donald Barthelme's stories, Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, Roth's My Life as a Man. Some would claim it is hardly so new: Don Quixote and In Search of Lost Time could be seen as reflexive novels. But one reason why we might resist such a term for Proust (and for Kundera), is that the reflective is much more present than the reflexive: that the reflexive gesture serves the reflective observation. Kundera tends not to pull reflexively the rug from under us all the better to pull the wool over our eyes (which would be a double act of manipulation); he wishes to show us what is under the rug, what a novelist does, how he or she achieves existential questioning.
For Hana Pichova, the narrator in the book functions to counter the oppressiveness of the regime he describes: "the narrator intentionally limits his power to avoid subjugating his characters to the same totalitarian rule they try to escape on the thematic level." ('The Narrator in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being') For Guy Scarpetta, Kundera manages to both acknowledge and counter the traditional novel a writer such as Alain Robbe-Grillet would say is no longer possible to take seriously, by creating characters we identify with and care about, but that we also see as fictive constructions the narrator can utilise to explore themes that interest him. "Kundera is obviously a writer for whom the 'what to say' is as important as the 'how to say it'" ('Kundera's Quartet') For our purposes we are more inclined to side with Scarpetta over Pichova, if sides need to be taken at all. For Picheva, the book is very much about the narration, as she finds little place for Kundera at all, usually referring to the narrator or Kundera's narrator, and only once referring to Kundera's work beyond the book when she quotes The Art of the Novel. Scarpetta is more inclined to see Kundera, a writer rather than a narrator. Picheva uses the word narrator eighty-five times; Scarpetta once. Yet there are few writers more than Kundera who don't just intrude on their material, but also make us wonder who the writer and not only the narrator happens to be. When in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator tells us that he worked for a while as an astrologer, is this a fictional device or a factual account? Many of the details surrounding it are consistent with information that is well known about Kundera's life: that he left Czechoslovakia and moved to a town in the northeast of France for example, but while reading the novel we might wonder whether this is fictive or factual, and within the story how many details are true or made up? We may accept that everything within a work of fiction has no obligation to the truth but that doesn't mean we won't respond to details within it as if they probably are. By reducing Kundera's work to narration we are in as much danger of aesthetic error as when someone reduces the work to the biographical details of an author's life. To see a writer's work only in their life is to undermine the oeuvre but to see in the work only a narrator can simplify it in another direction. Part of the appeal of Kundera's fiction rests on its collapsing of categories: it is work of philosophy, fiction, and autobiography, with each category illustrative of the novelist's need to explore particular themes. While insisting on the narrator over the writer has been of immense importance for anything from formalism to structuralism, from New Criticism to deconstruction, as an a priori insistence it can be almost as reductive as the thing it replaces. Pichova is in this sense much more reductive than Scarpetta, who always keeps the writer and not just the narrator in mind and thus sees more clearly the reflective identification that proves vital to the work.
But let us return to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and see how the writer manipulates his material without apparently showing great interest in narrative manipulation. When we're informed that Tomas and Tereza have died a third of the way through the book this seems to us to be Kundera's way of saying not that the character's don't matter, but they matter no more than the ideas and affects that contain them. They were never really alive in the first place, so they can't really be killed either. This could lead to an affectless creative world where the characters are at the mercy of the narrator, but if the narrator can be all-knowing, Kundera cannot, and seems to want to create a narrator who is not omniscient all the better to indicate that no writer ever happens to be. At one moment in the book, Kundera says "but isn't it true that an author can write only about himself?" before adding, "the characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. However, they only maintain life through the themes that contain them. They can be resurrected in that they were never born, as Tomas comes from the mental loins of Nietzsche as well as from Kundera. While many a writer will insist that the writing comes alive through the delineation of character and situation, social context and psychology, Kundera would half-agree with Alain Robbe-Grillet that this isn't only unnecessary, it can even be counter-productive. It is to Robbe-Grillet Scarpetta turns in seeing how much Kundera has taken from the traditional novel and how far he has departed from it. "Robbe-Grillet catalogued 'several outdated notions' regarding the novel, Scarpetta notes, to wit, character, story, commitment (engagement)." But the difference between Kundera and the traditional novel rests, as Scarpotta suggests, in what he sees as a Barthesian turning things over. This is what Kundera addresses in Testaments Betrayed when he sees in Mann's The Magic Mountain the traditional novel still at work; in Musil's The Man Without Qualities new forms at play. "Mann and Musil. Despite the closeness of their birth dates, their aesthetics belong to two different eras of the novel's history." This Kakania [the setting of Musil's novel] is not a background to the novel as Davos is in Thomas Mann, it is one of the novel's very themes: it is not described, it is analysed and thought through. Kundera escapes from our usual notion of manipulation because the manipulative is based on the narrational. By indicating that theme is more important than story, the rearranging of time allows Kundera to say with Robbe-Grillet that the story is longer so important, but to acknowledge also that the elements which were moving the story along are still of great significance. Tomas's death is not important as a story device, but it is still important as a theme. What this means is that Kundera as readily as Robbe-Grillet will accept that what we have are words on a page, first and foremost, rather than flesh and blood character's primarily, but while Robbe-Grillet brilliantly insists that we must accept this fact, Kundera is more inclined to say that this acceptance shouldn't preclude our feeling for story and character. People still exist, just not so firmly on the page, but instead in our minds and in his. Theme allows Kundera to resurrect character and story from the rubble of anything from deconstruction to post-modernism, to say in good faith that characterization might be dead but characters remain alive. If before they walked around held together by the biographical, now they are compounded by the meditative.
This can lead to accusations of weak characterization in Kundera's work, an accusation he wouldn't so much deny as theorise upon. Interviewer Christian Salmon notes that this "insistence on understanding the essence of situations seems to you to render descriptive techniques obsolete...And since the investigation of psychological motives interests you less than the analysis of situations, you are also very parsimonious about your characters' past". Kundera replies that he reckons there is a long history of this parsimoniousness, saying "what do we know about the physical appearance of Esch, Broch's greatest character? Nothing, except that he has big teeth. What do we know about K's childhood, or Schweik's." (The Art of the Novel) Yet from the point of view of characterization, The Unbearable Lightness of Being may be seen as his most successful novel, the one with characters like Tomas and Tereza, perhaps even Sabina and Franz whom people remember, the closest to characters who have escaped the experimental self that Kundera talks about his characters being created out of. If Kundera insists that whenever "a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story, it goes flat" (The Art of the Novel), some might insist that when one develops the theme to the detriment of rounded characters, the novel becomes even flatter. "Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published," John Banville says in the Guardian, twenty years after the book's publication. But he adds, "relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate." Yet taking into account Bayley's earlier distinction, there are novelists who give us this felt life like Tolstoy and Trollope, and then there are others who give us new perceptual world, like Dostoevsky and Kafka.
When Kundera invokes Kafka, Musil and Hasek, this is the tradition that he sees himself working within. In different ways but from the same assumption, Bayley and Banville believe in novels of felt life, hence why Bayley can say they are the truths necessary for fiction, and therefore necessary for life. "But Kundera would be likely to say that the former truths are also necessary to life as well, that Kafka is no less lifelike than Tolstoy. Part of the "supremely lucid gaze on the modern world" (Art of the Novel) Kundera sees Kafka offering, rests on eschewing pure realism and incorporating "the most unfettered imagination." The life Bayley insists upon has perhaps been outstripped by modern living, and Kafka more than most has captured an aspect of that absurdity. When we read Kafka we don't seek fully-rounded characters, we accept instead a realized, imaginative universe. But again, some would say this is what Kundera's work often lacks: that he doesn't detail the novels he writes enough for them to become realized worlds. It seems, though, that what Kundera wishes to do is to make the novel pertinent by creating a liminal space between the narrational and the authorial. A truth in a modern novel cannot be assumed, it must be argued for he would be likely to claim. If one allows sub-text to reveal the value, the truth, this falls back into assumption. It is this value Robbe-Grillet was so keen to attack when questioning the "particular confidence in a logic of things that was just and universal" (For a New Novel) he saw in much 19th century and that he believed Flaubert helped to overturn. Kundera would seem keener to retain an ethical place for the novel; just not a universal one, which is why we distinguish between the narrational and the authorial. The narrational value Robbe-Grillet sees in 19th-century fiction is inarguable; in Kundera's work it is quite literally debatable, and we see numerous examples of these debates in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, arguments that allow the writer to elicit a strong value system without at all assuming he is entitled to one. As Scarpetta says, despite Kundera working in an age of suspicion he manages to "claim the function of knowledge or of truth for the novel without, for all that, ceasing to assume and even demonstrating writing's artifice." ('Kundera's Quartet')
Turning again to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we can see how this plays out. Halfway through the novel, Kundera looks at the lack of privacy in Tereza's childhood, how her mother wished to expose everything from her own false teeth to Tereza's diaries. Her mother was a woman who lost her looks and then insisted on losing her dignity. She had a number of suitors and chose one who promptly impregnated her, and from thereafter her life was half-over, finished off when she took up with a womanizer and left her husband. One day, discovering Tereza's diary, the mother reads it out to various friends around the table. Kundera links such behaviour to the secret police in Czechoslovakia, and even to those who were caught in the concentration camps. "A concentration camp is a complete obliteration of privacy....Tereza lived in a concentration camp when she lived with her mother. Almost from childhood, she knew a concentration camp was nothing exceptional or startling, but something very basic: a given into which we are born and from which we can escape only with the greatest of efforts." The logic of Kundera's argument is suspect. A concentration is many things beyond an obliteration of privacy and thus, unless all these other aspects are acknowledged, Tereza was not brought up living in a concentration camp. But Kundera is interested not in universal reason or ethics, but in giving value to a character's perception of the world. Tereza understands an aspect of the horror of the camps as an aspect of those camps has been central to her life. We can see the horror of the camps from a certain point of view, and see the horror of Tereza's life from that point of view too. To make too much of Kundera's reasoning powers would be to undermine his authorial freedom. Equally, when he discusses Tomas's feelings for Tereza, Kundera says "on Monday he had been hit by a weight he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes." Again, we may note dubious argument this time through hyperbolic intent. Is there really no pain worse than compassion? Torture perhaps, an operation without an anaesthetic and so on. But such a position would be to miss the point. Kundera's purpose is to make us aware of the character's feelings and to find an ethos within those feelings, not assume there is a value system that justifies them beyond the author's persuasiveness.
This is perhaps what we might call authorial compassion, quite distinct from narrational assertion. When Kundera insists there is a difference between the novel and what is beyond it, he says, "outside the novel, we're in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of the playful and of hypothesis." However, the narration contains within it the affirmation as the authorial, we believe, does not. Here are a couple of examples from Balzac's Cousin Bette. "The moralist cannot deny that, generally speaking, wellbred people addicted to a vice are much more likeable than the virtuous are. Being conscious of their own shortcomings, they are careful to show a broadminded attitude towards their critics' weaknesses; and so they purchase lenience for themselves, and are considered first-class fellows." "For providence seems to have set a strong wall about the homes of clerks and the lower middle class, whose wives find their difficulties at least doubled by the social environment in which they move." These are Balzacian asides, narrational rather than authorial observations that need require from Balzac nothing more to justify them. They will be linked to character, but they stand as generalizations demanding no lengthy meditation. They often function like brief asides before Balzac gets on with telling his story, and we will find similar observations in Dickens, Austen and numerous other 19th century authors. But when Kundera says in The Unbearable Lightness of Being "men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories. Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female form", he does not believe such a remark can go ungrounded; he does not expect society to be on his side in the making of it. Subsequently, it will be justified both by the character of Tomas, and also a brief disquisition. He goes on to differentiate between the lyrical and the epic in womanizing: what the former seek "in women is themselves, their ideal, and since an ideal is by definition something that can never be found, they are disappointed again and again." In the latter "the man projects no subjective ideal on women, and since everything interests him, nothing can disappoint him." Balzac has no case to make but a generalization to offer, backed up by the societal on the one hand and the characterizational on the other. We can all agree, he seems to say, and let me continue telling my story. Kundera says we cannot easily agree so quickly and more analysis is required.
This also helps explain why Kundera is interested in situations, Balzac, like most other 19th century writers, in scenes. "In this Balzacian...construction, it is exclusively by means of the scenes that all the complexity of plot, all the richness of thought...all the psychology of the characters, must be expressed with clarity; that is why the scene, as it does in a play, becomes artificially constructed, dense (multiple encounters in a single scene), and develops with an unnatural logical rigor..." (Testaments Betrayed) Kundera includes even so innovative a 19th century writer as Dostoevsky in this approach, yet sees in Flaubert something else: "the discovery of the present moment, the discovery of the perpetual existence of the banal and the dramatic that underlies our lives." Yet Flaubert was still working with scenes; he wasn't quite generating situations. Kundera turns scenes into situations by absorbing the apparently unimportant and making it pertinent, arguing for its significance. The encounter between Tomas and Tereza early in The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a situation rather than a scene partly because it is predicated on the monumental importance of the insignificant. Here we have Kundera describing the first time she went to Tomas's flat and her insides started to rumble. She hadn't eaten anything since breakfast except for a quick sandwich, focusing instead on what she saw as the daring journey ahead rather than on her stomach. "But when we ignore the body, we are more easily victimized by it. She felt terrible standing there in front of Tomas listening to her belly speak out. She felt like crying!" Kundera doesn't leave it at that, and over the next few pages explores Tereza's relationship with her body, linking it to her relationship with her mother. Kundera tells us that Tereza's mother would laugh and tell others, "Tereza can't reconcile herself to the idea that the human body pisses and farts."
Thus Kundera will extend a detail on the first page in this second section of the book, 'Soul and Body' over many pages as he determines to ignore the scene and find the given situation, what Kundera would call the bottom of an existential problem. For Tereza this is linked to her mother, her relationship with her body, and her mother's relationship with her body. Many pages later in the book, the idea reappears when she has an assignation with another man. "She was sitting on the toilet, and her sudden desire to void her bowels was in fact a desire to go to the extreme of humiliation, to become only and utterly a body, the body her mother used to say was good for nothing but digesting and excreting." But he will also extend the idea elsewhere in the novel too, and in other books. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being it is there when Sabina looks at herself in the mirror and "has a fantasy of Tomas seating her on the toilet in her bowler hat and watching her void her bowels." Or Stalin's son, who after being captured during WWII was sharing a hut with British soldiers who took umbrage to Yakov's messy toilet habits. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera discusses a momentary lapse into erotic madness. Meeting up with a friend who had done much to help Kundera, who was a problem for the government, and who had got herself into trouble doing so, Kundera meets up with her in an apartment where she is not a little frightened about the political trouble she may be in, and Kundera finds himself for the time aroused in her presence, He links it to her troubled bowels, a result of her nervousness, and sees the contradiction between body and soul: "it was contradictions like those, I felt, that made up her true essence - that treasure, that nugget of gold that diamond buried deep within her. I felt like leaping on her and tearing it out of her. I felt like engulfing her - her shit and her ineffable soul."
In a typical novelist's work, this might seem like a preoccupation, a theme a writer returns to again and again. But we need to remember that for Kundera a theme is very close to an idea, and thus the preoccupation with shit is expanded into the provocatively theoretical in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Art of the Novel. This is where shit is linked to the "categorical agreement with being". "Either/ Or." Kundera says: "either shit is acceptable (in which case don't lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner. It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit s denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch." In The Art of the Novel, Kundera reckons, "in Prague we saw kitsch as art's prime enemy. Not in France. For the French the opposite of real art is entertainment. The opposite of serious art is light, minor art. But for my part, I never minded Agatha Christie's detective novels. Whereas Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz at the piano...those I detest, deeply, sincerely." Such works have denied the categorical agreement with being, as Kundera also mentions big Hollywood films like Kramer versus Kramer and Doctor Zhivago, Nietzsche's hatred for Victor Hugo's 'pretty words' and 'ceremonial dress', Kundera sees an insincerity that goes to the core of our selves, and reckons that core is closely affiliated with shit. To deny shit is to deny the integrity of our being and arrive at a superficial approach to our existence. However, depth to Kundera wouldn't be some essence, it would seem, but the layering and perspectivizing of a personality. Part of that personality would be the bowels we walk around with so that whether it is Tereza off to meet Tomas, Sabina during sex, or the young women helping Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, one escapes kitsch by acknowledging shit. And this isn't just the preoccupation of a writer fascinated by defecation; it is an attempt to create what we can call a provisional world view around the bowel. As Kundera says, "all that meditation on kitsch [in The Unbearable Lightness of Being] is vitally important for me, there is a great deal of reflection, experience, study, even passion behind it, but the tone is never serious; it is provocative. That essay is unthinkable outside the novel; it is what I mean by 'a specifically novelistic essay'". (The Art of the Novel)
If Bayley wondered whether The Unbearable Lightness of Being would survive, part of its survival rests on how we see not just Kundera's novel but fiction more generally. Kundera so often questions the 19th-century novel because in some ways it is a threat to his own: the presuppositions underpinning the work of Dickens, George Eliot, Hugo, Balzac and others are those held by many: scenes, characters and story, all explored in the most efficient and non-digressive manner possible. We might have post-modern novels that play around with character, scene and story, but their frivolous nature emphasises all the better the proper place of the novel as a way of telling stories about people. Kundera would seem interested too in telling stories about people, placing them in narratives and generating situations in which they can act within, but with a very different emphasis. Kundera wants the authorial freedom to explore themes that interest him, not only a narrational control that will give him permission to tell a story. Such a position isn't only the petulant desire of the egomaniac who is above telling tales, it is also vital to the writer's own categorical agreement with being. Think of the stories we are legitimately allowed to tell, not only so often in fiction, but also in life. How easy is it to talk about the problem of one's bowels, the mild eczema inside the thighs, the ulcer in the back of the throat? When we bump into someone and they ask how we are doing; what they expect in reply is that we tell them about a new job we have got, the woman or man we have become engaged to, the holiday we have returned from. It is as if we remain caught within a categorical agreement with being that denies the body, denies shit, for the ostensible story of our lives. To understand an aspect of Kundera's work is to comprehend the need to see beyond the cause and effect of narrative, whose constraints are perhaps often why we reveal certain things and not others. To say that we have a new job will explain why we are moving to California, to say that we are engaged is to indicate a forthcoming wedding. By being equally interested in the minutiae of life, Kundera takes it upon himself to create his own causality, the hidden causality that acknowledges the vagaries of the body and the hesitancies of the mind. When for example Sabina decides she sees weakness in her lover Franz, this comes at a moment when Franz impresses her with his strength. "I can protect you no matter what. I used to be a Judo champion." Sabina replies saying "It's good to know you're so strong" but sees only fragility. "Franz may be strong, but his strength is directed outward; when it comes to the people he lives with, the people he loves, he's weak". Kundera expands this outward by the end of the paragraph by saying: "physical love is unthinkable without violence." Is this Sabina's thought or Kundera's?
The point is it can be both, as if Sabina has given him the opportunity to reflect on what physical desire happens to be and finds it when thinking of Sabina. The passage comes in a section of the book called 'Words Misunderstood'. Here Kundera explores how Sabina and Franz mean very different things when they speak, and he searches out the underlying differences that might not be apparent superficially. This is what Kundera means when he talks about deep inside: the thoughts whose consequences often possess no outer manifestation, but contain an interior causality. It is thoughts like Sabina's here that will lead her to leave Franz, an event that will seem inexplicable to Franz, who is willing to leave his wife for her. Why must she leave him? Because she must betray people; it is her way and has been for many years. Franz's show of strength is linked to his goodness; she wants a different type of strength that allows someone to leave situations easily; not extricate themselves messily. Franz is a good man but Sabina always remains a stranger to him, and the use of misunderstood words is Kundera's way of exploring this difference. But Kundera does not hide the scaffolding that allows him to assemble his story. He insists that we see both the structural workings of the material, and also the underlying thoughts and feeling of his characters. Rather than the invisible structure and the sub-textual feeling, Kundera exposes both. When Bayley, Coe and Banville muse over Kundera's importance, it rests partly on this: can Kundera's work impact enough on the novel for it to seem so much more than a clever aberration, or do we look back on it as no more than a curiosity?
Bayley, Coe and the Irish Banville are writing in an anglo-context. Is this the context that would prefer Joyce to Lawrence, would usually insist on brilliant use of language over the exploration of an idea? What makes Bayley's comment about two different approaches interesting, the idea of the Tolstoyan and the Kafkan, is at least the acknowledgement of a pressing thought behind the latter. Such books can never quite write themselves, in common parlance: they need an idea, a problem to drive them. This is what Kundera sees as so important to the modern novel and why he admires Musil, Broch and Kafka, for example, over Joyce, Hemingway and Nabokov - even if he speaks very well of the latter too. If fiction is first of all not about pushing characters through scenes, but extracting ideas from situations that he places characters within, this is vital because the novel is not a means by which to amuse us, though it may, or temporarily bemuse us, as many a thriller will insist upon, but to confront us with our own being in the world. Invoking Heidegger, Kundera says "Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting, not even as actor to stage set. Man and the world are bound together like the snail in its shell: the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-weit-sein) changes as well."(The Art of the Novel) How to represent that relationship in fictional form, without falling into the societal, the sort of fiction that leaves us people in society rather than beings in the world? In this sense, Lawrence is a more interesting writer than Joyce: there is more being in the world in Lawrence; more people in society in Joyce. This isn't to put into competition one great modernist with another, but Lawrence would seem closer to the Dostoyesvkian figure who cannot live in society and wants to live in the world; Joyce someone who wants to delineate that society with an astonishingly new level of precision. Kundera has little interest in the type of precision Joyce invokes: he wants only the details necessary to lay out the situation, not the fine-grained work required for the laying out of the scene. Is this a failing or a different type of success? It is that question which seems to sit behind the remarks of Coe and Bayley, as though undecided themselves as to how important Kundera happens to be. For our purposes, he remains very important indeed. He is a writer who reminds us that we are in the world and that fiction is within the world that we are in. This has little to do with a metafictional ingenuity, but with the idea that we are in the world and of the world. That we are always more than the sum total of our social status, even if we cannot easily define and explain what that excess happens to be. Few novelists write more successfully about that excess as given narrative enquiry. Rather than seeing it as extraneous to the novel, we see it as at the very core of it. It is this which gives weight to our unbearable lightness of being, and gives lightness to the weight of social expectation so often placed upon us.
© Tony McKibbin