Milan Kundera | Immortality

“Just imagine living in a world without mirrors. You’d dream about your face and imagine it as an outer reflection of what is inside you. And then, when you reached forty, someone put a mirror before you for the first time in your life. Imagine your fright! You’d see the face of a stranger. And you’d know quite clearly what you are unable to grasp: your face is not you.” 

Milan Kundera, Immortality

Immortality is a novel in seven parts, written by Milan Kundera in 1988 in Czech. It was first published in 1990 in French, and then translated into English by Peter Kussi. The story springs from a casual gesture of a woman, seemingly to her swimming instructor. Immortality is the last of a trilogy that includes The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.Source

Divided into seven parts, the novel centers on Agnes, her husband Paul, and her sister Laura. Several of the storylines involve real historical figures.

  1. The Face establishes these characters.
  2. Immortality describes Goethe’s fraught relationship with Bettina, a young woman who aspires to create a place for herself in the pantheon of history by controlling Goethe’s legacy after his death.
  3. Fighting describes Agnes and Laura fight, while focusing on the deteriorating state of Laura’s relationship with Bernard Bertrand.
  4. Homo Sentimentalis describes Goethe’s afterlife and postmortem friendship with Ernest Hemingway.
  5. Chance describes Agnes’ death, intersecting with a conversation between Kundera and Professor Avenarius.
  6. The Dial introduces a new character, Rubens, who had an affair with Agnes years prior to the onset of the main events in the plot.
  7. The Celebration concludes the novel in the same health club where Kundera first observed the inspirational wave gesture.

The novel is at times narrated by a self-insertion of Kundera. At the start, this narrator sees a woman wave and creates the character of Agnes: “I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.”Source

Later, the Kundera character says: “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.” Source

“The purpose of the poetry is not to dazzle us with an astonishing thought, but to make one moment of existence unforgettable and worthy of unbearable nostalgia.” 

Milan Kundera, Immortality

Kundera’s style of fiction is rare; Inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche and the great (Kundera thinks the greatest) novelist Miguel de Cervantes, Kundera writes by layering the lives and loves of multiple third-person characters — essentially all figments of his imagination — with that of his own dialog, in the first person. What emerges is a beautifully rich array of interwoven stories spanning sometimes vastly different time periods. A result that is equal parts poetry with magic. Source

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. (…) 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.” Source

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.Source

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.”Source

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.Source

“A person is nothing but his image. Philosophers can tell us that it doesn’t matter what the world thinks of us, that nothing matters but what we really are. But philosophers don’t understand anything. As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating. But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes? Can we possibly imagine love without anxiously following our image in the mind of the beloved? When we are no longer interested in how we are seen by the person we love, it means we no longer love.” 

Milan Kundera, Immortality

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