I’ve just finished my first two Milan Kundera novels (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting), only to conclude at the end that they aren’t actually novels. Novels are essentially focused on a combination of narrative, emotion, and ideas. Kundera’s novels grow out of ideas, and everything else he puts into them are his personal experiments, his way of watching the “universe inside himself” play out. And that works pretty well—the prose is beautiful, many of the characters are touching, and the ideas are uncomfortable but unignorable.
Much as I’d like to just analyze the books, this blog is focused on gender. These books are rather sex-obsessed, and its easy to see that Kundera is obsessed with ideas of love and romance. He creates characters who marry each other, who love each other, and who are never monogamous.
The differences he writes between men and women are unconventional but well-defined. He sees relationships as being made up of someone who is weak and someone who is strong. In the vast majority of relationships, the weak one is the woman. In order to equalize a relationship, the woman doesn’t become strong: the man becomes weak.
Happiness is, for his characters, an unattainable dream. None of them have happy marriages, all of them are battered by their lack of unflinching loyalty to the Soviet regime, and none of them can love each other unreservedly.
All the characters are screwed-up, unhappy, dissatisfied, troubled, etc. But Kundera, for better or worse, divides his women in virgin/whore dichotomies. There are promiscuous women who do not connect love and sex and have torrid affairs with whomever they take a liking to. And then there are largely monogamous women who only have sex outside of their relationships because their husbands are unfaithful. Both types of women define themselves by their relationships, by the man they loved whether he is dead, married, or out of reach forever. Even the most independent female character in Unbearable Lightness thinks almost obsessively about her sex life.
In contrast, men put their work first and their wives a distant second. All of the men, without exception, are adulterous. Sometimes it’s because they fall in love with other women, but more often it’s the pure biological urge to fuck whatever will hold still long enough. Women are reduced to bodies, to sex objects without faces.
Kundera believes that a woman stops being a sex object the second she looks a man in the eyes, but if that is so than I wonder how he can draw from himself so many nameless, faceless bodies for his male characters to bang endlessly. Although he tries to make the individual characters dynamic, the focus on their usually similar sex lives makes these men and women blur together, reveals a male and female template that Kundera seems to be using as a sort of character cheat sheet.
That’s not to say that the novels are in any way bad—they’re magnificent. The questions he asks, the perspective he gives on sex, life, love, and being as a modern human, are intensely relevant. He just needed a good talking to by someone like Faulkner, a bit of help with his ladies.