Milan Kundera is that rarest of writers, one whose novels keep getting better and better. No small feat in itself, it is one made all the more remarkable given the boldness and brilliance of his first novel, THE JOKE (1967), subsequent efforts on the part of Western reviewers to praise Kundera by reducing his fiction to the level of politics, and most recently the publication of his extraordinary sixth novel THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1984). Strangely, it may have been the critical and commercial success of Philip Kaufman’s film version of the latter which led Kundera, himself a former professor of film, to write IMMORTALITY as a decidedly unfilmable novel (made paradoxically of perfectly filmable images) and to do this in a continuing effort to discover the essence of the novel as a form, to find out exactly what it is that only a novel can say.

While waiting for a friend, “Milan Kundera,” the image of the author, sees a woman in her sixties turn and wave girlishly to the lifeguard who has just given her a swimming lesson. From that gesture is born a word, Agnes, which in turn engenders a purely mental image of a young woman alone in a half-empty bed, and then of a husband, a daughter, a sister, a mother, and a father (dead five years this very day), whose secretary once used the same gesture made by the woman “actually” seen leaving the pool. It is this gesture, the secretary’s, which Agnes will make her own, fashioning her very...

(The entire section is 447 words.)