The Unbearable Lightness of Being

New Price: $16.99
Used Price: $1.27

Mentioned in:

What Doesn’t Matter: On Milan Kundera’s ‘The Festival of Insignificance’

Milan Kundera begins his new novel, The Festival of Insignificance, with an unusual philosophical query — why are belly buttons so sexy right now? Or, as Mr. Kundera writes in more erudite language, underscoring the absurdity of his question, “how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel?”

This inquiry comes after Alain, the first character introduced, meditates on the meanings of erotic fixations of different eras: thighs, buttocks, and breasts. Finally, Alain concludes that while those three body parts are unique to each woman, all navels look the same. And thus, our era has lost a certain celebration of individuality.

Directly after Kundera introduces this belly button query, he inserts a scene about another man torn between desire to attend a Marc Chagall show and repulsion at the thought of becoming “part of that endless queue” outside the museum, suffering from overcrowded galleries where “bodies and chatter would obscure the paintings.” Here, he exemplifies the tension between an individual and a group. Not only does a group prohibit this individual’s access to art, but also the individual’s enjoyment of art, should he enter the museum. Art and sexuality, once sacred and individual pleasures, have lost some of their potency and become banal elements of a mainstream popular culture.

It’s a bleak assessment of contemporary life from an author with over 80 years of experience in the world. Yet, it’s Kundera writing it, not your grandfather, so it’s more poignant, surreal, and funny than the typical line of thought that begins something like, “In my day, milk cost less than a dollar and English professors could still get jobs.” In seven short, loosely-connected chapters, the author writes of the trials and tribulations of four aging male friends (Alain, Ramon, Charles, and Caliban) as they move among the Paris streets, attend a party, and share an extended joke about Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev.

The novel most deeply explores the generational divide as it details Alain’s relationship with Madeleine, a young woman many years his junior:

Even the dialogue between two lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood. That was why, for instance, he never knew if the reason Madeleine twisted the names of the past was that she had never heard of them or that she was parodying them on purpose, to make clear to everyone that she was not the least bit interested in anything that had happened before her own lifetime.

The narrator suggests an unbridgeable gap between generations. How can a man (say, Kundera), who was at one time a member of the Communist Party, became partly involved in the Prague Spring, and is now living in exile, write something that will make any sense to a millennial (say, me), an American who was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and now receives much of my news in 140 characters? It’s certainly a depressing thought for those of us who want to believe that some human experiences — love, grief, joy, pain — transcend generations.

Yet, it’s also notable that Madeleine is either unaware of — or isn’t interested in — anything that happened before she was born, that the older man has chosen someone totally preoccupied with the present and future, who chooses to be ignorant. The affair becomes a way for Alain to both forget and escape the past, to dwell in conversations that amount only to insignificance.

Another character, Caliban, meets a maid who develops an interest in him after learning that he speaks neither of the languages (French or Portuguese) in which she’s able to converse. He does, in fact, speak French, but he has told people that he only speaks Pakistani. The two speak to each other in their own languages without hope of ever being understood. When they do speak, it’s of trivialities, like the maid’s choice in lipstick colors. In a variation on the same theme, Kundera introduces a character named Quaquelique who seduces women by making banal remarks that demand “no intelligent response whatever.” He’s quite successful.

It all seems like a cop out. There’s something cowardly about choosing a romantic partner with whom you’ll never have a meaningful conversation. Instead of devoting themselves to romantic relationships, these characters choose partners with whom they’re literally and figuratively speaking in a different language. It’s certainly a shift from the characters in Kundera’s most famous work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who seek love and immerse themselves in complex affairs. As a reader, it’s more difficult to invest in the new characters of The Festival of Insignificance and their partners when they are only interested in attachments that are ultimately insignificant. They don’t care, so it’s difficult for the reader to care.

So, in this novel that suggests that art, sexuality, and love have all lost their power in the 21st century, is there any redemption at all?

In a small line, the narrator explicitly reveals what he does value among the trivialities in our lives, our individual festivals of insignificance. “In my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: ‘friendship,’” he says. This line holds promise for an explanation of friendship, its merits, and the reasons why it trumps all other human relationships. The reader might expect Kundera, in his own masterful way, to raise questions about the nature of friendship and platonic love in the way he contemplates contemporary life and attitudes toward sexuality and art.

Kundera doesn’t deliver. Instead of exploring what brought these men together and makes their relationship work, he focuses instead on those relationships that hold no significance. The readers hear the friends’ witty conversations and witness their rogue activities, but never much more. In its own twisted logic, the novel asserts that the insignificant is actually significant and worthy of its own narrative. But for the reader looking for four fully developed characters, a clear picture of what makes the bond between them so “sacred,” and some questioning of human interactions, it’s not fulfilling.

It’s a shame. Kundera has written novels that raise complicated questions about political ideology and human interaction while engaging with fraught historical conflicts. Yet with this new installment, he seems to reject the more thoughtful approach and substitute it for this short work about what doesn’t matter. Sure, he ends with a lyrical appreciation of “the value of insignificance,” but it doesn’t satisfy. At the conclusion of the novel, Ramon gives a monologue in which he states, “Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence.” The way that Kundera structures the novel, it seems to call for some final, conclusive speech. Here it is! The narrator teases. You wanted a pearl of wisdom, and this is it!

The narrator also mocks those readers looking for something more substantial. Another character outside of the core friend group, D’Ardelo, says nothing when Ramon makes this proclamation about insignificance. The narrator states, “Ramon understands that his hymn to insignificance has not succeeded in pleasing this man so attached to the gravity of grand truths.” Ramon disparages D’Ardelo for his earnestness. To appease him, Ramon tells him that he looked beautiful next to a woman at a party.

At fewer than 150 pages, The Festival of Insignificance is a breezy read that just might prove to be insignificant within Kundera’s larger oeuvre. The book contains a multitude of ideas, some more satisfactorily detailed than others. The thing about belly buttons, though, is that they don’t all look the same. Just ask the piercer at your local tattoo parlor. And if you think they do, you just might not be looking hard enough. Alain’s conclusion is based on a fallacy, and his initial question, too, is based on a premise that isn’t quite believable — I still have yet to meet a man, millennial or otherwise, who prefers belly buttons to buttocks, thighs, or breasts. Perhaps, after all, there is still hope for this era, for individual experience, and for lives of some significance.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.

This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.

The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.

Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.

But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”

“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.

Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.

The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.

Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.

White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.

Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”

The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

On Coincidence, Love, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

1.
A few weeks ago, in a small town in the southern Netherlands, I found myself in a cramped and musty used bookstore.  If the bookshop was small, the section of books in English was miniscule, barely taking up two thin shelves.  Not expecting much, I stumbled upon not one but two copies of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The price, at a euro fifty, was right, and I snagged one of the copies off the shelf.

2.
Back when I was in college, not all that many years ago, back when I read more books in an average week than I do now in a good month, I picked up Kundera’s magnificent novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.  I think I read the whole novel in one sitting, a rare occurrence.  It’s a book I still think about fondly.  For me, the best books are the ones that do not sacrifice form for function or function for form.  That is, the writing must work well both stylistically and on the plain level of plot, and I remember The Book of Laughter and Forgetting doing both.

I meant to pick up The Unbearable Lightness of Being immediately upon finishing Laughter and Forgetting, but something else got in the way.  Maybe it was Joyce, maybe it was Faulkner, maybe it was some obscure book of Twain’s that I needed to reread for my thesis.  I don’t remember anymore, but Kundera somehow fell by the wayside, and I never read what today I assume is his masterpiece.

3.
If it hadn’t been for a fortunate coincidence, I probably would have let The Unbearable Lightness of Being sit on my shelf for another few months or years while I made my way through the books in a to-be-read pile that never seems to grow any smaller.

The day after my purchase of Lightness, I happened to be reading a review of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  I am a big fan of Shteyngart, and am just as excited to delve into his new dystopian world as I was to devour his painfully funny novel Absurdistan.  In the course of reading the review, I was surprised to find that The Unbearable Lightness of Being plays a semi-significant role in Shteyngart’s new work.  Apparently one of the protagonists of Love Story, a bibliophile in an age of hyperactive technojunkies, in which books are all but obsolete, dreams of reading passages of Lightness to his girlfriend in bed.

After reading the review, I did a little Googling and discovered that Lightness is indeed considered one of those romantic books that lovers have been reading to each other in bed for decades.

A romantic Czech novel endorsed by a character in a Shteyngart novel?  The coincidence, along with the approbation, was almost too much to bear.

I decided to eschew the pile of novels currently sitting on my nightstand for the moment, and jump right in to Lightness.

4.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of those books that you don’t know you need to read until after you’ve read it.

Possibly the perfect post-modern novel (written in the early eighties, at what I think of as the zenith of the post-modern period), Lightness plays wonderfully inventive games with the reader without sacrificing an iota of plot or detail.  The book is written in a close third person, with the omniscient narrator butting in every now and again to provide commentary and remind the reader that the characters you are reading about and identifying with are his creations and nothing more.

The book’s first five chapters form a chiasmus (A-B-C-B-A).  The outsides of the chiasmus follow the story of Tomas, a Prague physician and philanderer who makes a point of sleeping in his own bed alone every night, while at the same time sleeping with hundreds of women.

Tomas meets Tereza, a waitress from a small Czech town whose personal story is followed in the B sections of the chiasmus.  Tomas is unbearably stricken with Tereza: “It occurred to [Tomas] that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream.  He couldn’t very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river!”

A paragraph later, Kundera’s narrator explains: “Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous.  Metaphors are not to be trifled with.  A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

5.
The center of the novel’s chiasmus, the C-section, tracks the life of Sabina, an artist who is for a time a lover of Tomas and a rival/mentor of Tereza.

Near the end of this third section of the book, long before the novel is over, we learn that Tomas and Tereza died in a car crash.  The rest of the book backtracks and details the lives of Tomas and Tereza, although now, of course, everything is different.  Now we know that their every step foretells an impending doom.

6.
The protagonist of Super Sad True Love Story, the one who wanted to read The Unbearable Lightness of Being to his girlfriend in bed, had it wrong.  Lightness is anything but a love story.  At the very least, it is not a love story one should desire to read in bed to their beloved.

Tomas, the book’s main character, cannot stay faithful to his lover and wife Tereza.  He spends the bulk of their lives together cheating on her, so she goes to sleep at night smelling “the aroma of a[nother] woman’s sex organs.”  When he finally does come around and stop sleeping with other women, it is only because they are living in a small hamlet in the countryside, and there are no eligible women available.

Tereza, for her part, becomes so disenchanted with the love she has for Tomas that she dreams continually of his abandonment and her suicide, or alternately of his ordering her execution.  It becomes so bad that, even after they move to the country, even when Tomas is a beaten down and weary old man, she still suspects him of cheating on her.

7.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is not a love story.  It is a story about survival in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing one can do to stop it.

Tereza survives Tomas’s overwhelming destructiveness.  Tomas survives the loss of his position as a doctor and, along with it, his sense of purpose, in the face of Soviet repression and Czech indifference.

The both of them survive a lifetime of pain together, until they don’t.  The two of them die, together.  Their death is hidden somewhere in the middle of the book, and it doesn’t mean a thing.

8.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a love story.  It is a story about two people surviving together in the face of a power so overwhelming there is nothing they can do to stop it.

It is a story of two people who die together, needlessly and hopelessly in love.

9.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is full of coincidences.  In fact, the novel can easily be read as a treatise on the nature of coincidence.

Tomas broods throughout the book on the nature of his relationship with Tereza:

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town.  They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, but the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place.  The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Tereza was employed.  He happened to have had enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant.  Tereza happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table.  It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza.

That afternoon a few weeks ago, I too suffered six chance happenings.  I happened to be in Den Bosch.   I happened to wander down a small side street and notice a tiny bookshop.  I happened to go in and notice a worn copy of a book I had wanted to read for a number of years.  I happened to purchase it, planning to put it aside and read it some time in the future.  The next day, I happened to read an article about a book by a contemporary writer I greatly admire, touting (if only through that book’s narrator) the book I had just picked up.  As I read the article, I happened to have the book by my side, so I could begin to read it immediately, before life got in the way.

Six coincidences that are not really coincidences.  After all, isn’t everything we do a coincidence?  I choose to walk down street A over street B.  I meet a woman on street A I would have missed had I walked down street B.  We fall in love.  We get married.  We spend our life together.

Is my walking down street A and not street B a coincidence?  Had I walked down street B and met a different woman and spent a similar life with her, would that have been a coincidence as well?

Life, all life, can be read as coincidence, as a series of happenings that could just as easily not have happened.  But where does that leave us?

Nowhere.  Looking back, like Tomas, wondering how different things would have been had he chosen street C or street Z.

10.
By the end of the novel (not the middle of the novel, where Tomas and Teresa are killed, but the end of the novel, where they are hopelessly alive), Tomas has stopped his endless questioning.  There is no more what happened to be.  There is only what is.

In this manner, the experience of reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being is reflected in the text itself.

Sure, it was a coincidence that I stumbled on this book and almost immediately read it after years of benign neglect.  But the coincidence isn’t what matters.

What matters isn’t what street you walked down.  What really matters, ultimately, is that you married the woman you met walking down street A.

What really matters is that you read this magnificent book.  And, of course, that reading the book changed your life.

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

| 4

Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

Book bits – Sherlock, the Unbearable Dave Matthews, Renaming Google Print

Stanford “will rerelease a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes, just as they were originally printed and illustrated in The Strand Magazine.”Maciej Ceglowski suggests that Milan Kundera “is the Dave Matthews of Slavic letters, a talented hack, certainly a hack who’s paid his dues, but a hack nonetheless.” And offers up a number of Eastern European books that young lovers might give to one another instead of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.Google Print has been renamed Google Book Search. “Why the change? Well, one factor was all the comments we got about how excited people were that Google Print would help them print out their documents, or web pages they visit — which of course it won’t.”

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR