Three books have been spinning in my head for a little while now — especially since last Friday, when I bought a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in an airport bookshop on my way home. I thought I had read it a few years ago, but it was not the same book. I was confusing it with Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which – strangely enough – takes its title from a line in the Milan Kundera book I bought.
But at the same time, I kept mixing these titles around in my mind with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, which – as far as I can tell from the jacket summary – has nothing in common whatsoever with the Foer or Kunera books.
That is what I aim to find out. So I’ve been reading Kundera all week, almost done. Perhaps I was confusing this book with the one by Dave Eggers because this book by Kundera is, in fact, heartbreaking and has many moments of genius. The way he plays with language, the reality he gives his characters. It’s Prague in the 1960s but it might as well be today, you and me.
[ spoiler alert! ]
But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s pretend the story can be summed up thus:
wife is a photographer
mistress is a painter
mistress coaches wife on her art
Compare that to the very simple summary of another story this week, from Woody Allen’s newest movie (go see it) Vicky Christina Barcelona:
ex-wife is a painter
mistress is a photographer
ex-wife coaches mistress on her art
A lot of reviews for the Woody Allen movie said it was about love and sex. I didn’t see that. And I don’t see it in Kundera’s novel either. I see in both Allen’s film and Kundera’s novel a struggle for expression. Personal expression. Creative expression. What have you. The characters are all struggling to figure out how to SHOW something, anything to other people and be understood. Love conveniently figures into the stories because it is one of the most misunderstood expressions humans deal with on a regular basis. But to confine the tension of these stories to love is to be too simplistic. In Kundera’s case, especially, there are themes of stifled expression explored on numerous fronts: sexual, sensual, political, familial, artistic and patriotic.
Am I projecting? Well, sure, I’m the reader. That’s what I get to do. It’s my role as the reader to project myself onto the characters and into the story. None of us know how to read any other way.
Expression, as I was saying, is the crux. At one point in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Scarlett Johannson’s character blurts out that she has no talent. That she has ideas, she has feelings she wants to express, but she can’t because she has no talent. The film’s tagline: “Life is the ultimate work of art.” The Unbearable Lightness of Being has so many examples, I don’t know where to start, but I’ll give you one of my favorites: Tereza, the wife in the fore-mentioned love triangle, has a habit from childhood of staring at herself in the mirror, willing her soul to show itself in her face, searching for some sign of the soul in the body. The only time she is truly happy is when she takes photos of the Russian tanks invading Prague.
Both stories end without conclusion. No one ever really gets what they want because they never actually know what they want. In order to express something sufficiently, wouldn’t you have to already know what you want to express? Kundera’s answer:
“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”
“Einmal ist keinmal … what happens but once might as well not have happened at all.”