Review Of Immortality,
by Milan Kundera
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/7/05
Immortality is probably the last novel by Kundera that shows him at his best. This book, translated by Peter Kussi, released in 1990, is the last of a trilogy that includes the great The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. While Immortality is not a great book, and not in the class of those other two books, it is certainly a good book that continues Kundera’s metafictional ride through the 20th Century.
The nuts and bolts plot is about two French sisters, Agnes and Laura, and the man they are involved with- Paul. Except that none of them are real- they are the fictive inventions of the metafictional Milan Kundera who, after an old lady motions to a swimming instructor at a Paris spa, somehow becomes infatuated with the name Agnes, and decides to write a novel called Immortality. He says, ‘At the time, that gesture aroused in me immense, inexplicable nostalgia, and this nostalgia gave birth to the woman I call Agnes.’ Of course, there are detours- whole sections of the book that are philosophic musings between literary figures like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ernest Hemingway. Also along for the ride is Professor Avenarius, a possibly real character who has been metafictionalized, who consults with Kundera on the progress of his novel, and whom Kundera rewards with a copy of his earlier novel Life Is Elsewhere. If this seems convolutes it is, and a bit unnecessary, although the more straight-forward passages in which literary and real world heroes come and go are better, and the philosophizing is first rate.
In many ways Kundera has taken what started with Vonnegut- the metafictive realm- and moved it to its next level. However, this book is not on a par with his two earlier masterworks, and the utter narrative convolutions are the book’s undoing, what separates it from them. Where they are fresh and playful this novel, at times, seems on the verge of collapsing upon its own cutesiness. Also, the lives of the four ‘real fictive’ characters never grabs ahold of the reader like those in the earlier books. Yet, overall, this is balanced by the great ideas put into life, death, art, and immortality.
But, this is not a book for the would be Kunderaphile to start with. Its
convolutions may put them off from reading other of his works, and this book
also marked the last gasp of greatness, as Kundera, since then, seems to merely
be aping his former greatness, as his polypersonaic skills have faltered and
he’s become much more generic and predictable in both forms and ideas. Where
once Kundera’s interruptions of story were whimsical and refreshing, even by
this novel, they seem more affective than effective, and his characters less
individuals than personifications of themes. Agnes is not really Agnes, but a
symbol of the human yearn for deathlessness, which then is rehashed by Goethe
and his lover Bettina von Arnim- a woman who would nowadays be classified as a
groupie of the rich and famous. Here is the symbolized Agnes:
She walked around the pool toward the exit. She passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him, she turned her head, smiled, and waved to him. At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl! Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly colored ball to her lover. That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance, while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment. There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless. In any case, the instant she turned, smiled, and waved to the young lifeguard (who couldn’t control himself and burst out laughing), she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.
Professor Avenarius, to use another example, is not a professor- even if he really exists- so much as Kundera’s own rebellious streak, for this man’s great joy is puncturing automobile tires, which are seen as enablers to the destruction of the real by the phony- i.e.- modern civilization.
Of course, these merely symbolic characters are not symbols in their realm, and when the Professor puncture’s Agnes’s husband’s, Paul’s, tires he is delayed in getting to a hospital after Agnes has been in a car accident, after swerving to avoid a would-be suicide. She dies minutes before Paul’s arrival. She joins the already dead, like Goethe and Hemingway, who moan on about the curse of their immortality, for, as Hemingway bitches, ‘Instead of reading my books, they're writing books about me.’ Yet, it’s these more overt declamations, that are so rare in The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, which infest Immortality with too much didactic preening. Part 6, the Rubens chapter, which stands alone and apart from the rest of the book, does not work, and is an example of where Kundera starts going wrong. It is a tangent without necessity- in short, it’s excess for the sake of filling out a novel that, at 345 pages, is too long, and was in need of trimming, not padding. Too much of the book never fully coalesces. In his two great novels they do, even though that coalescence is not necessary.
And while I reiterate the fact that this is Kundera’s best book, after his two masterworks, there is only so much breaking of the fourth wall that is needed to convey the metafictive nature of tales, in general, and this one specifically. Sometimes walls are not only necessary, but enough.
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