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Milan Kundera - Immortality

Milan Kundera - Immortality

Milan Kundera states it best midway through his novel: '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 it is concentrated'.

Indeed, the novel Immortality is not concerned with plot or with structure, with character descriptions or sweeping narrative. No, Kundera has set himself both an easier and a more challenging task than that. His novel deals with themes; the theme of immortality and the theme of eroticism form the bulk of the work, but there are many lesser themes throughout. Take away the themes and you have taken away Kundera's novel. He eschews plot, dramatically and emphatically, because to rely on plot means that 'The novel is consumed in the fire of its own tension like a bale of straw.'

The novel is both framed and included within the story of Milan Kundera's life during the writing of the novel, Immortality. This could be a confusing device, but it is not. He is at a swimming pool where he is watching an older woman as she swims. He is entranced by her 'touchingly comic manner', but his attention is soon diverted. But then, as she leaves, his eye catches her again, and she waves to another man. 'It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover.'

From this gesture, Kundera creates a character, Agnes. She uses the gesture at times, understanding the impact it has on males. Agnes' sister, Laura, adopts the gesture and perfects it, which means we now have two characters. Leisurely, Kundera adds more, rounding out Agnes' life by giving her a child, a husband, a feuding sister, an occupation.

But the message of the novel is not told through Agnes' trials and tribulations. While she is arguably unhappy in her life and wishes to escape to Switzerland, this detail is simply that - a fact in her life. What Kundera is more concerned with is the machinations of her erotic and emotional existence and through that, the erotic and emotional interplay between male and female. He does not limit himself to Agnes and her husband, rather he seeks to speak on behalf of every woman and every husband, every seducer and every nervous girl, every amorous lover and every bewitched man.

Kundera uses a thought, an action, an episode in his character's life to digress philosophically on any number of topics. 'Imagology' is a significant topic, which recurs throughout the novel. Kundera considers that ideology has passed, to be replaced with imagology, or the importance of images and symbols above all else. Politicians speak in repetitive, emotionally charged statements designed purely to be picked up by reporters as sound bites. Millions of pictures of Lenin exist throughout the Communist world, not because he is loved necessarily, but because the image of Lenin is important beyond the ideology.

Recurrence is a strong theme of the work. The wave described on the first page of the novel comes back through every aspect of the novel. Metaphors and descriptive tropes return again and again, to further enhance and explain a philosophical digression or a nuance of character.

Immortality, or the concept of existing beyond your own death, is dealt with through the sub-story of Goethe and Bettina. At first it seems a shocking digression - Just when the novel seems to be developing a plot, we are taken back to 1811, to the time of Goethe and the Weimar Republic. Goethe, an author known for his constant striving (and achievement of) literary immortality, is confronted with a much younger woman, Bettina, who seeks her own assured immortality through association with Goethe. Over forty pages or so, Kundera recounts their lives together, and then over the rest of the novel he uses the themes and ideas put forth in that section to further explain the narrative whole. In 1811, Bettina's glasses were struck from her face by Goethe's jilted wife; in the 1980s, Agnes fingertips forced her sister's dark glasses from her face to shatter on the ground.

At times, Kundera inserts himself into the text. He interacts with the major characters of the novel, and is surprised when they do not act the way he has envisioned in his text. His friend, Professor Avenarius, is having an affair with one of the characters, which Kundera did not expect. These meta-textual of post-modern touches do not take away from the novel, rather they enhance the over-arching theme of the work, which is that of philosophical and erotic problems and discussion, not that of character cohesion or plot strength.

We need not believe the characters as people, which allows Kundera to focus explicitly on the areas of their created lives that matter most to him. Part 6, near the very end of the novel, deals with an entirely new character, Rubens, and his realisation that his erotic adventures are over. Kundera is discussing with Avenarius, 'I am really looking forward to Part Six. 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...Part Six will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest story I have ever written.'

Rubens sphere of interaction with the other characters in the novel is extremely low, but his story is thematically adjacent and complimentary to the previous sections of the novel. We do not need to know about him as a character, but his existence as a theme is necessary for the completion and culmination of the novel as a thematic work. That Rubens and Agnes have a mild connection in no way cheapens the force of Part Six which is, as Kundera says, very sad.

Kundera's work is one that reads fast, but should be savoured slowly. There are large, important themes at work here, just as Kundera introduces large, important philosophical questions into his text. 'If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won't be able to understand it', we are told, and that is true. Savour and enjoy the philosophy and the wit. Learn from the erotic truths. Kundera is in his element. He shines.

See Also

Kundera, Milan:
---Farewell Waltz
---Laughable Loves
List of Czech authors under review


Wikipedia - Author

Harper Collins (Publisher Publicity Page)
Milan Kundera Homepage
Interview with Milan Kundera
New York Times Featured Author: Milan Kundera Info page
Author's Calendar info page
Cosmoetica Review