Click & Buy: Die UnsterblichkeitImmortalityClick & Buy: Immortality

Novel in seven parts, written 1988, first pubished 1990 in French.
English edition 345 p., translation by Peter Kussi.

Novel Re-examined In a Novel by Kundera


In Milan Kundera's brilliantly mordant new novel, "Immortality," the author's persona explains: "No novelist is dearer to me than Robert Musil. He died one morning while lifting weights. When I lift them myself, I keep anxiously checking my pulse, and I am afraid of dropping dead, for to die with a weight in my hand like my revered author would make me an epigone so unbelievable, frenetic and fanatical as immediately to assure me of ridiculous immortality."

Death is an active presence in this novel. Several of its leading characters, like Goethe and Hemingway no less, are already dead. Many others are killed, among them the protagonist, a woman named Agnes, who dies in a car crash after swerving to avoid a would-be suicide. Though typical enough of Mr. Kundera, the fact and consequences of Agnes's death are reported long before its details.

Death pervades the book, death and immortality, which "form an inseparable pair," writes the author, "more perfect than Marx and Engels, Romeo and Juliet, Laurel and Hardy," and, in this book at least, Goethe and Hemingway, who meet in heaven in its pages and debate whether they themselves or their books are what has brought them fame. "Instead of reading my books, they're writing books about me," Hemingway says. "That's immortality," Goethe says. "Immortality means eternal trial."

Yet despite its preoccupation with death, Mr. Kundera's novel, beautifully translated from the Czech by Peter Kussi, who teaches Slavic languages and literature at Columbia University, is never somber. The characters are possessed of that "lightness of being" that in Mr. Kundera's earlier novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" went with being a nonperson in a totalitarian culture, and in "Immortality" seems to rise out of being an expatriate.

Even Agnes springs from a gesture that the author once noticed while sitting beside the swimming pool at his health club in Paris. "At the time, that gesture aroused in me immense, inexplicable nostalgia, and this nostalgia gave birth to the woman I call Agnes." In his paradoxical fashion, he reasons that since "there are fewer gestures in the world than there are individuals," therefore "a gesture is more individual than an individual." So not even the death of Agnes disturbs the reader greatly.

Such paradoxes multiply throughout. Mr. Kundera loves to stand conventional words and ideas on their heads. Agnes's younger sister, Laura, decides to fight for her lover, Paul, and then by fighting him loses him. Elsewhere the author remarks: "I take the liberty of maintaining that without the art of ambiguity there is no real eroticism, and the stronger the ambiguity, the more powerful the excitement. Who cannot recall from childhood the wonderful game of doctor!"

And still elsewhere he writes: "The concept of human rights goes back some 200 years, but it reached its greatest glory in the second half of the 1970's. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had just been exiled from his country, and his striking figure, adorned with a beard and handcuffs, hypnotized Western intellectuals sick with a longing for the great destiny that had been denied them. It was only thanks to him that they started to believe, after a 50-year delay, that in Communist Russia there were concentration camps; even progressive people were now ready to admit that imprisoning someone for his opinions was not just. And they found an excellent justification for their new attitude: Russian Communists violated human rights, in spite of the fact that these rights had been gloriously proclaimed by the French Revolution itself!"

Despite its tendency to lecture the reader, "Immortality" never suffers from didacticism. As always, its author proves himself to be a master of orchestrating leitmotifs. Nothing is random in the text, not an incident in its somewhat attenuated main plot about the interlocking lives and loves of half a dozen Parisians; not a phrase or a gesture. And Mr. Kundera can be funny: "Music: a pump for inflating the soul. Hypertrophic souls turned into huge balloons rise to the ceiling of the concert hall and jostle each other in unbelievable congestion."

One is tempted by Mr. Kundera's writing to revise one's definition of a plot. Instead of calling it an action that arouses expectations, one might describe it as a series of verbal gestures that arouse curiosity. The wonder is that nothing is static in this author's work; everything develops and keeps changing shape.

But Mr. Kundera would prefer not to be subsumed by conventional definitions of art. As he tells a friend in "Immortality": "Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded is concentrated."

Further on, he continues: "A novel shouldn't be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. I am really looking to Part 6. A completely new character will enter the novel. And at the end of that part he will disappear without a trace. He causes nothing and leaves no effects. That is precisely what I like about him. Part 6 will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest erotic story I have ever written."

Sure enough, Part 6 is self-contained and sad. Neither its characters nor most of its leitmotifs are echoed anywhere else in the book. But Part 6 also sags. It is merely an episode. As such it serves mainly to create the impression that in writing it Mr. Kundera has been defiantly avant-garde.

Still, it seems only fair to let him make one other point. In countering the objections that Aristotle raised to episodes, Mr. Kundera writes: "No episode is a priori condemned to remain an episode forever, for every event, no matter how trivial, conceals within itself the possibility of sooner or later becoming the cause of other events and thus changing into a story or an adventure. Episodes are like land mines. The majority of them never explode, but the most unremarkable of them may someday turn into a story that will prove fateful to you."

A major motif of "Immortality" is the way artists and their work are changed by the passage of time: how, to cite the simplest of Mr. Kundera's examples, a famous poem by Goethe, which starts "Uber allen Gipfeln," is for children a bedtime rhyme and for old people an evocation of death.

So perhaps in time the episode that is the sixth section of "Immortality" will explode. But for now it remains the relatively weak part of an otherwise strong and mesmerizing novel.



[The Joke]
[Laughable Loves]
[Life is Elsewhere]
[The Farewell Waltz]
[The Book of Laughter and Forgetting]
[The Unbearable Lightness of Being]



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