I can't remember precisely when I read my first Kundera or which it was, because once I had started I couldn't stop until I emptied them all. Fresh from the English classics at Oxford and finding my feet on a south London rag, a little sheltered, very impressionable, I was drawn into a restless world of ideas and characters in which nothing is how we first perceive it, and meaning and motive are bent like light refracting through a prism. It was heady stuff, original and subversive.
I was brought up in a Lincolnshire market town, went to the local grammar; at 16 I was a communist, by 17 a Roman Catholic. I read Graham Greene and Iris Murdoch, and was as intoxicated by Goody Pangall's red hair as the unfortunate Dean in Golding's study of obsession, The Spire. I chased and caught girls but spent many hours in prayer too. And the church seemed as interested in sex as I was.
I didn't pray that much at university, but I found another faith: I was in love. It was the early Eighties, with causes aplenty for a born believer: liberation theology and the Labour Party of Foot and Benn, republicanism in Ireland, nuclear disarmament at home. I believed in what Kundera describes as "The Grand March" to universal brotherhood that goes ever onwards through history. For Kundera this is "kitsch" – the triumph of sentiment over reason – but I clung to the hope like a limpet to a rock.
I became a journalist and set out with Kundera on a journey away from "the noisy foolishness of human certainties". He had made the same journey in Czechoslovakia, from communist to outcast, turning his back on "the totalitarian world" where there is an answer to everything.
Published in Kundera's exile in 1984, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the idea of "lightness" and heaviness – emptiness and meaning – through the story of two couples; Tomas the surgeon and womaniser who loves his wife, Tereza, and Sabina, a painter conducting an affair with a Swiss lecturer, Franz. It's a tapestry of ideas woven through the lives of the characters by the teasing voice of the author-narrator. Can Franz begin to understand why Sabina is excited by betrayal, or Tereza appreciate what drives Tomas from conquest to conquest? They have been shaped by such different experiences they are unable to interpret each other's feelings and actions – with comic, sometimes tragic consequences. As a writer, it is the skill with which Kundera opens up that gap between perception and reality that I admire so much.
This is a shamelessly clever book – at times a little cold – but exhilaratingly subversive and funny. Kundera takes you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you pitilessly: "Is that what you really believe? Is that what you are like?" Can you ask more of a novel?
Andrew Williams's 'The Interrogator' is published by John MurrayReuse content