Central European literature is one of the literatures that fascinated me briefly- a short stopover as it were, on the journey from Russian classics to contemporary South American literature that continues to mesmerize.
What did appeal then was Good Soldier Svejk and Franz Kafka but not the contemporary writers- one reason possibly was what I perceived was their anti- socialist underpinnings. A believer in “existing socialism” then, I gave up reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being after a hundred pages or so.
Jiri Travnickek’s “second reading” of the novel makes me consider a “second reading” myself. At that time, I was dismissive of its departure from social realism. Hopefully wiser, perhaps I am less likely to do so now.
A further realization I made at the time was that a novel had to be narrated in a manner that simultaneously generates illusions and breaks them down. Through The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera equipped us with the conviction that you can’t tell a love story any old way, even if it is integrated into major historical events. You have to make your narrative method one of the themes of the narrative itself
…As a novelist, however, he never accepted the radical narrative techniques of Broch’s The Sleepwalkers or The Death of Virgil. He never managed to be as uncompromisingly ascetic and story-defying as the Austrian novelist. Where Broch decided to serve experimentation and nothing else, Kundera remains more moderate, more compromising in his narrative. If Broch is obsessed with composition and style, Kundera manages to pay more attention to story and characters. While Broch puts himself wholly at the service of the modern novel (with an emphasis on the word modern), Kundera’s writing remains more in the service of the novel as such. And The Unbearable Lightness of Being reveals that the novel cannot be ordered around from the outside, that it has its own needs, tradition, methods of establishing contact with its readers. In other words: its own wisdom. Aesthetic imperatives belong to programmes; to the novel belongs a search for the centre, for balance – between narrator and characters, story and composition, narration and thought.