This Month's Book Club: Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'

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WRITTEN BY
Emily Zemler

In an attempt to prove that musicians aren't just products of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, SPIN.com has gathered together an eclectic group of literary-minded musicians to participate in a monthly, online book club. One member per month will select a book that has impacted their music career for the club to read and subsequently discuss. Then we will give you the highlights.

This Month's Selection: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Selected by: Meg Frampton, Meg & Dia

Reason for Selection: My sister asked me what this book was about after I had finished. Right away, I couldn't describe the plot or story line very clearly. Kundera's artistic descriptions and unique perspectives stand out to me more than the actual story itself. He is a true artist.

For example, to make myself a bit clearer, without ruining the book for y'all, there is a scene in which he explains how the main character could never remember people's faces as soon as they leave. He just remembers certain features and embellishes them until the images he holds become caricatures of their actual features. Of course, he describes it much more eloquently than I just did, but you'll see what I mean if you care to indulge.

Discussion highlights:

Rick Moody, author and honorary book club member

Unbearable Lightness is a book that was published in a very specific time, and that's one of the reasons that it has a fond place in my heart and has since I read it first, back in the '80s. I feel like Meg is right to speak of its lack of "story," although the story in Kundera (or at least until the Berlin Wall came down) was always about political repression in Czechoslovakia, and, in particular, about the way the thaw of May '68 in Prague (called, I believe, the Prague Spring) was crushed by the Soviets and their puppets there.

The lightness refers, I imagine, to the way Kundera [sees] carnal stuff -- love, sex -- serve as the only opportunity for liberation, under a repressive regime. The book sort of winds back and forth around the story. As such, at the time it came out, it was a big corrective on "plot-oriented" American fiction. A big relief for me as a reader. I wish we could have another one of these non-linear international sensations about now.

Dave Smallen, Street to Nowhere

I read this when I just began touring and found myself somehow surrounded by infidelity -- in the experiences of both bands and crews around me and the people that we would meet in each city. Coming from parents still quite happy together (which is something that I feel sort of always set me apart, being the exception, not the rule, it seems), I had trouble getting my head around the cheating, the screwing around, and the different philosophy that each person [used] to rationalize their behavior. It felt criminal to me, it really did, but I knew it wasn't my place to intervene, and so I tried to ignore it, but it still sort of ate away at me.

I have to admit that I was also pretty lonely at that time, and reading Unbearable Lightness, I was really moved by the love story. I mean, with all of the coincidence and all, it felt very real, dramatic, yes, but not over-dramatic, a sort of love that could really develop. That element of infidelity was there again, though, and I was consumed with how Tomas had this separation between sex and love and Tereza couldn't break the two apart for herself.

That didn't make it okay in my eyes, but it gave me some understanding, that not everyone has a severe emotional connection between those things, that people are what they are and feel what they feel. It practically destroys Tereza to sleep with someone outside of love, but it is a total pastime to Tomas. We all know a lot of dudes like that.

That broke that issue wide open for me, that like most everything, it isn't black and white, and trying to align your life with another's is one of the most difficult things. It can never be perfect, but it can be really good. It still didn't defend the actions of the guys and girls around me, but it allowed me to let it alone, to let it be their problem if it was a problem. That is what stayed with me from the reading, one more example of all the gray area and all the little unfairnesses of life. Like Leonard Cohen Says: "The duty of lovers is to tarnish the golden rule."

More discussion highlights on page 2.

Shawn Harris, the Matches

This book came to me three years ago postmarked from Turkey. I heard about it in Paris, a bullet point in a shouting match through cigarette clouds and over a wall of rock music. I woke up with a temporary sharpie tattoo of "nylon candera," and washed it out of mind until the package came. I never dropped my favorite book into a mailbox bound for Turkey. Tomas is no longer my power animal. Maybe it's time.

Aaron Davidson, Brilliant Red Lights

This book presented a jumble of contradictions that left me unsatisfied. I couldn't connect with the coincidences, dependencies, infidelities, excuses, or the "love" that "emerged." These feelings were at odds with the big brother backdrop, something our generation can relate to more than ever.

I found Unbearable to be wildly cynical, which doesn't mean there weren't aspects I found provocative. I most enjoyed Sabina, both the receptacle and manipulator of other's fantasies. Her art was born of the mistakenly splattered paint -- just as she "happened" upon the bowler hat in front of the mirror, bearing her and Tomas' fantasy. In this way she became the art she was trying to create.

I'd call this Kundera's most elegant -- and, frankly, identifiable -- conundrum: the fantasy of mistake vs. the mistake of fantasy. Musicians and writers should be able to relate to this, as we imagine our art and ideas to be so much more than coincidence, when really they might be just that.

That Tomas and (mostly) Tereza become slaves to coincidence seemed too heavy. Honestly, I kept waiting for the love story to start. Instead, the oppressions of the country seemed to melt into the bedroom, the double agents and secret police accosting Tereza's life as hidden letters and the smell of her husband's hair (he should have looked into the unbearable lightness of Garnier Fructise products!). Few elements seemed more cynical than Tereza's submissions to Tomas' perpetual infidelities, especially since Kundera declared these representations of her "love."

I might have taken pity on her had Tomas seemed like more of a catch, but he was so passionless. Besides the faceless affairs, he couldn't commit to the imperfect revolution that he philosophically supported (and even contributed to!). The couple's move to the country seemed like literary escapism, a final removal from Sabina's noble but confused journey towards art and change and personal understanding. I would have much rather they moved away from each other (and stayed there).

The last segment was especially disappointing; the cancerous dog "smiling" in the very countryside that reduced the "lovers" to laborers seemed particularly dark and non-redemptive. What can I say? I'm not a pet person.

Shawn Harris, the Matches

My bookmark, on page 223, is a random hand flier from '06, advertising a show at the Balazo gallery in San Francisco for Meg & Dia.

Einmal ist Keinmal. Once is not at all. In the book's context, I read the line as pessimistic, but out of context (which, noted, has everything to do with the time period and Eastern Europe) it can be construed as the opposite. "Once does not exist" might be another translation, which just spins me. "Time does not exist." Infinity. Is this a misread? In terms of the author's intention, I think yes, but I like it.

Colin Frangincetto, Circa Survive

I'll start by saying that I'm only halfway through the book, which is considered a crime in most circles. It has been recommended to me more times than any other book that I can recall. I now understand why. I have so much to say about it already, and like I said, I haven't finished it.

A female friend of mine recently projected some rage in Kundera's general direction saying something along the lines of: "Now I know why so many musicians love this fucking book. They want to hear their infidelities glorified and justified in poetic form." And while I can sympathize with her, I disagree with what she implied about the book. In a margin I wrote in response to her: "This is not glorification by any means... it is a philosophical debate."

Aaron -- I suppose we've lived very different lives and experienced/observed very different things because the "jumble of contradictions" you spoke of is all that life's reflection has ever shown to me. We are all full of shit. We are all infidels... in physicality or perhaps only in thought or in many cases both. We are all co-dependent. And yes, somehow love does seem to emerge from that spew of gross contradiction. I do, however, really agree with your thoughts on Sabina. She is my favorite character as well.

Shawn -- Your Meg & Dia coincidence... so perfect. I oddly took a break from reading at our L.A. show, read your response and looked up to see miss Dia Frampton entering our backstage room. I had seen her sister (the one who chose this book) the night before.

I have always fought the idea that monogamy is natural. No, I am not a misogynist or a moral-less whore. I just think that monogamy and marriage especially are more so by-products of societal goals than of love and companionship. (Gasp!) I understand the ideas of love and commitment and whole-heartedly respect them. However, the torn emotions the characters feel are so natural it hurts to read.

More than anything else I feel that Kundera has lived many sides of his characters lives. His understanding of the psychology behind each mindset exudes evidence of either impeccable research or profound experience. I'll be back. After I finish.

Emily Zemler, SPIN.com

Colin -- It was considerate of you to disguise me as "a female friend" for the sake of the book club, but as you slightly misquoted me, I will come clean (also because I like the spark of debate being reignited within this book club).

I read the first 60 pages of this book straight, threw the book at the wall and haven't been able to even look at the cover since. This is unfortunate because the writing is undeniably lovely and it is a book I feel should be on the list of books I've read. However, I am not one with the idea that love and sex cannot be reconciled (although I do not believe they necessarily have to be) and I have grown tired of artists, particularly male artists, justifying their unkind treatment of women through poetic means.

In other words, just because an author describes a male protagonist treating the woman he cares about like shit in beautiful language should not dignify that action in reality.

I am an admitted fan of both Hemingway and Bukowski, two male authors who did not have the best track record in terms of their representation of women and their on-page treatment of the relationships between men and women, but as I grow older and supposedly grow up I find that I have more and more trouble stomaching this distorted reflection of life in literature (and all art).

I will hopefully find cause and courage to look this book in the face again and perhaps come out the other side with a different perspective, but for the sake of discussion and argument (and being correctly quoted), this is what I believe and feel in this moment. No moment, however, represents an absolute.

More discussion highlights on page 3.

Meg Frampton, Meg & Dia

Wow, it's interesting being on the other end of things by being the one choosing the book and instigating the discussions. Invigorating, I must say! Shawn -- I find it extremely amusing that one of our fliers ended up playing the role of your bookmark. Should have thrown it away when you had the chance. Colin -- I'm glad you are enjoying the book. Emily -- I'm sorry you didn't find it as entertaining.

By being part of a book club in which I'm sure one of the underlying aims is to bring the minds of females and males closer together and to prove an even understanding between the sexes is perfectly capable of existing, I'm a bit hesitant to have a desire to interject another female point of view after reading Emily's last comment. In my opinion, Kundera isn't making excuses for male immoral behavior. I'm as much aghast at the prospect of the bad treatment of women, naturally.

The reason why I am in love with this book is because of his presentation of human character and real life. All the crazy concepts that come with being alive like sex and love and lust and apathy and fear, they can't possibly be the same to every person. And morals in each society make a general outline of what a person should hope to experience or learn when participating in any of the above mentioned activities.

Maybe those of us more apt to develop an understanding for the author's torturous poetry and accept the book haven't found love in a long while or just fell out of a bad case of it. Who knows? I ask -- please, please, don't throw this book against a wall. Kundera is a cocky bastard but he doesn't deserve to have his spine broken.

On a less constructive note, I thought that if Kundera was A) the second electric cellist in mid-period Yes and B) about to drop the Unbearable EP he'd have some excellent potential song titles: 1. "Formal Sorcery" 2. "Inventing Symposia" 3. "Merely Another Father" 4. "Version Of Eternal Return." I'd definitely download that for free!

Elizabeth Seward, Spelling and Grammar

Hey everyone! This is my first contribution to this book club! First of all, thank you, Meg, for choosing this book. I was only a few pages into it before realizing I was thoroughly spellbound. While the cliché of musicians seeking reinforcement for their infidelities, as discussed above, could very well be a common denominator among many musician fans of this book, I contend that there's a lot more to it than that. This book, for me, dealt with the dissonance that haunts a lot of us when we try to ground our own existentialism. The pain we inflict on others almost invariably comes from a place of pain in ourselves, or so it seems to me.

At first, I felt I could relate to Tomas on an almost uncomfortable level. His inabilities to commit but constant longings to please aren't at all unfamiliar to me. However, there was a turning point in this book for me where Tomas began to feel more like what I work diligently not to be, and wish to never become, than a kindred spirit. I think this was when he married Tereza.

The idea of marrying someone to appease them disgusts me. He was never honest in the ways that he should have been with Tereza. He could have easily taken note of the fact, through her dreams and behavior, that she was not on par with him morally. Tereza was not a creature of polygamy. And I think that it was more wrong of Tomas to keep her around his arm, knowing the pain his "erotic friendships" caused her, than it was for her to stay with him, always hoping for the best.

Fears of infidelity in a relationship, I feel, have little to do with sex. No, sexual connections really have nothing to do with it -- not for me, at least. I think the torment Tereza experienced was planted in a soil of fear, yes, but a different kind of fear. The real concern in this situation, for which every lover is being forsaken, is the fear that you'll lose your companion... your best friend... this person who you share the most intimate aspects of your life with -- your tears, your anger, your plans.

I can relate to all of the characters in this book, as I'm sure you all can, too. We all have ins and outs with our love lives, nights of crying, nights of being more dishonest than we should, days when our ghosts of our pasts haunt us more than they should ever be allowed, etc. But the real dilemma I find here, the REAL common denominator, is the title itself: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Or the unbearable heaviness of being. Or how about the unbearable... being?

Being, in itself, is a push and pull if you wish to reach into yourself at all. If you wish to serve your mind, body, soul, and spirit simultaneously, you will rarely sleep soundly. How exactly does one go about planning for the future they may not even have while savoring today enough to make living worthwhile? I think all beings who have connected the said realms of themselves to life feel this tension. And where does the cadence lie? I'm still trying to figure it out, the same way all of the characters in this book were trying to figure it out.

More discussion highlights on page 4.

Drew Roulette, Dredg

So, should I live life to its lightest? Or should I live it to its heaviest? If mine is heavy, should I find a lover who is light? I feel heavy. I am attracted to light things. I feel light when I travel. I feel heavy when I cry. I need a light beer.

Aaron -- to flirt with your constructiveness, here are a couple more song titles for the Unbearable EP: "A Forgotten Lamp in the Room of the Dead," "Man the Cow Parasite," "My Hair Smells Like the Red Tent."

This book club, like the bowler hat, is a motif in the musical composition that is our lives. Lucky are the chosen few who dare tread through theses bearable bursts of expression that exclude nothing between God and shit. It returns again and again, each time walking away under the influence of a different meaning. I'm glad to be a part.

Why is it that we feel so heavy when we think of times when we have wronged or made someone else suffer? The heaviness comes with the ticks and the tocks. We suffer under its unbearable weight as if it is trying to make us feel like we deserve to be here. I think Tereza was definitely suffering while "Tomas and his lightness" (good name for an indie band) gallivanted around town.

In the end, she spent most of her time failing to bear his endless field trips with infidelity. With life comes many unbearable things, and when our loved one becomes light and wanders, it can be more than unbearable.

"There are books meant for daytime reading and books that can be read only at night."

I couldn't read this one at night. When I tried, I would feel the weight of my head sinking deeper into the pillow, wearing its feathers like headphones. It reminded me of the weight in my past. Though I cant complain, I haven't been involved in any bad relationships, and I think I was in love twice... but love chases itself down hallways upon hallways looking to remind itself of that one pure moment it shared with its reflection. And it exists on so many levels that we can neither catch nor define it. But with love's weight comes its lightness, creating a perfect balance if we could ever be so imaginative and/or lucky.

In the end I think this pretty much sums up this novel for me: "Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him/her demand-free and asking for nothing but their company."

Alas, thanks to Emily, Kundera now has to have reconstructive paperback surgery.

Stephen Christian, Anberlin

Please allow me to jump in at the last second, and while reading through the comments I noticed no one really focused on or took away the same heaviness from the story that I did. At moments this book felt like a burden that I willfully took on (and enjoyed). There was a perfect mirror I found in each character; through the flaws, the success and failure, I saw a reflection. The oppression of communism (not only in Europe but in the Thailand chapter) weighed on me, and again I took note of the freedom I have currently and was reminded me of how lucky/blessed I am because the fact is that in no way could I have my current occupation during a communistic occupation.

It really irritated me how flippant sexual experiences were in this book, as if when missing a meal and they became hungry and would grow skinny without a new "strange" experience. I wondered if this was projected onto the characters by Kundera through his own personal experience or through simple caveman longings that Kundera had and was able to live out vicariously through his characters like Tomas and Sabrina. But then again I wonder what the "drug" of choice would be in a communist country. Alcohol, coke, etc. It just feels like in spite of oppression sex seems like the likely choice for anyone.

The bowling hat reverberated with me very much so, not because of experience but that I found myself thinking about it quite often and in different social circumstances throughout the week. It seemed that the bowling hat represented trying to relive past romance (sexual). It is one of two things:

RE-CREATION: I wonder how many bowling hats I have worn in my life. Trying to recreate a moment I had with a former love because it felt so perfect, so much like love. I associated the location, food, experience with a feeling; once that human was out of my life I longed for that same feeling so with my next interest I simply try to recreate and never does it have the same effect.

THE COVER UP: There is a painting by Picasso in the Chicago Museum of Art called "The Old Guitarist" from his blue period. We have all seen it in a magazine or art book but what you won't see unless you are in person is that Picasso had started to paint a woman, but may have not liked it, and began painting the guitarist. At a certain angle you can still see the eyes and the hair of the woman behind him, and it looks as though the old man has his head buried in her chest.

Maybe we are trying to cover up the old memories with our bowling hat, replace what we had with someone so that when we look back in 20 years all we see are the memories with the one we are with, not the one who initially created the memory with us. The problem though rests in the fact that no matter how hard you try to cover up the memory when you are there in person if you stare at it closely you can still see the remnants; eyes, hair, and a chest you once buried your head into.

This book captivated my attention, attended many sleepless nights and even an ER visit. In addition, the discussion/debates on this book have been the best yet. Good selection, my friend.

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