Lately, whenever I turn on the radio, there’s Britney Spears, singing, in her weird techno-baby voice, about how  thoroughly she has repudiated the charming womanizer she spends an awful lot of time cooing over in that song, which is, of course named after him:  Womanizer. 

Ah, but if she had ever met Tomas, the womanizer at the center of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, well, she’d obviously be singing a different tune.  But for that to happen she would have to become someone she is not, which is to say, a character in a twentieth century European novel of ideas, one of the few places I can imagine Tomas existing and not getting roundly punished for his philandering ways.  

Say what you like, but I love novels in which people behave in ways that are conventionally seen as bad (I don’t mean murderers or rapists, I mean people who don’t behave according to more workaday social norms), and yet they don’t end up being punished. Instead,  they’re seen as interesting.  They aren’t always happy, and they don’t always make other people happy.  Bad things happen to them, mostly because they return to Prague from Geneva and get kicked out of their medical practice and are crushed by communism.  But you get no sense that what happens to Tomas happens because he is a bad man who sleeps around. 

This is not the moral world of most novels.  I thought it might be interesting at this point to give you a catalogue of all the ways writers do women in after they decide to take lovers, or appear to have taken lovers:  they are run over by trains; they poison themselves (quite a few end this way, for some reason), they drown, they are choked to death and they lose their children.  And that is off the top of my  head in thirty seconds. 

Obviously, when women take lots of lovers they get punished.  But that’s not always true.  Mary Wesley for example,  never does that judgmental  punishment thing.  For her, as for Kundera, the interesting questions about promiscuity (I can’t think of a better word for it at the moment), have nothing to do with conventional morality, but more to do with how we love, how long love must last, and whether love and sex always must go together. 

And so what you discover about Tomas is that he takes lover after lover because he’s interested in what’s unique about women and sex is how he discovers that.  This behavior is painful and damaging to the woman he really does love, although she puts up with it without seeming like an idiot.  And, in the end, Tomas and Tereza seem to find some way to get beyond all the sex. 

There’s a lot more to this novel than sex — it’s about the Prague spring, and its aftermath, for one thing, and there are also other, very interesting lovers.  But today, I only have time for the womanizing part and my observation that there’s something refreshing about a book that can look at this stock character, the Womanizer, and see something different and quite complex, a vision that’s only possible when you write to understand rather than to judge, as Kundera so beautifully does.


16 thoughts on “Womanizer

  1. Hello Nick — Welcome! I think I’d rather make history by, you know, solving the budget crisis or getting us out of Iraq in one piece. But I will take my history-making moments where I can find them.

    Poor thing indeed Jacob Russell.

  2. Indeed — the juxtaposition here of the ludicrious and the sublime is … downright postmodern.

    I believe that I would enjoy taking a lot of lovers and then seeing whether I am punished. Life has yet to provide me with the opportunity to do this, however.

  3. Loving the comments here as much as the post! Have you seen the film of this, Bloglily? It is wonderful, with Daniel Day Lewis as Tomas and Juliette Binoche as… as….(memory blank) ummmm, the woman he marries. But I am ashamed to say I have never read Kundera although I would very much like to. I love European literature because it ditches conventional morality in preference for an exploration of human potential and philosophical thought. I really like all that quirky eccentricity – and there’s a deep debate with ethics, as opposed to morality, that I also find extremely intriguing. Anyway, note to self: must get to pick up a Kundera novel this year.

  4. I also loved the book and the film – I though the latter really did justice to the book, and I very seldom say that. Daniel Day-Lewis was superb as Tomas, and the ending (which I won’t spoil for you) was very beautifully handled.

  5. Charlotte, that’s so good to hear. I love D-D-Lewis. (I mean, I like him). And I am glad the ending works in the film.

    U-Dad — What a wonderful first date that must have been.

    Litlove, the film is high on my list of things to watch — but without children, I think.

    Dear David, There’s nothing like living life as a dare to literature — if Tomas could get away with it, well, why not you?

  6. Like Litlove, I really liked this film, too. Lena Olin is also in it, and the performances are really good. It’s a really interesting adaptation–the novel is so nonlinear I had no idea what a screenwriter would do with it–but it’s pretty great. The scenes of the Prague Spring invasion are amazing…

  7. Because my wife is an opera singer and one of our daughters is named Mimi I should point out that in opera, women who take lots of lovers get tuberculosis and die, tragically, singing a high c despite the consumption.

  8. What a lovely post–how do you make such bad behavior sound so appealing? But then you’re talking about Milan Kundera, so there you go. I was just thinking about him and how I devoured his books in the 90s, but then have not picked any up since then and wondered who was reading him these days. Now I know. And this makes me want to pick up something to read again–and Mary Wesley for comparison (another author I devoured)!

  9. I have to add a plug here for Kundera’s collection of essays, The Curtain…with special pleading for Die Weltliterature… this is an essay, touching on translation and much much more, that should be required reading for anyone who cares about literature in the context of world culture.

  10. Oh Gentle Reader! Lena Olin. I’ll bet she’s the one wearing the hat. How great is my weekend going to be when ths arrives from netflix?

    Dear Ben, I adore you. Thank you for expanding my list.

    Danielle, Exactly — it is Kundera who makes bad behavior work. Given that I have had a typical American upbringing I think I probably couldn’t myself pull off this sort of story. Mary Wesley is, in fact, the first writer I’ve read who really does go to a different place in matters of the heart, telling those wonderful stories about women who take things into their own hands and make things work for them, even if their choices are terribly unconventional. Have you read Patrick Marnham’s biography of her? It’s called Wild Mary and I really liked it.

    Jacob, The Curtain sounds quite good. I’m going to check the library.

    Thank you Cam. I will be interested to hear your reaction!

  11. I haven’t read this novel since I was 20, and what struck me most was how much “voiding” and “evacuation” was going on. But that probably indicates more about me than the novel…

  12. Hmm. I don’t know what early parenting is like for you, Marie, but for me, those two words pretty much summed up my main preoccupations. Well, sleep was big in there too!

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