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.