Since the publication of his first novel, The Joke (1967), in Czechoslovakia in the heady and short-lived days of the Prague Spring, when it seemed that Eastern European socialism could wear not only a human face but a humorous one as well, Milan Kundera has repeatedly surpassed himself as one of the twentieth century’s most interesting novelists, outstripping his critics’ efforts to keep his fiction within carefully defined aesthetic and political boundaries. Like The Joke, even the relatively circumscribed novels Life Is Elsewhere (1973) and The Farewell Party (1976) clearly point to the richly virtuoso style of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979) and the dizzying brilliance of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), a seemingly unfilmable fiction by a former professor of film made into a motion picture whose commercial and critical success may have contributed to Kundera’s writing of his sixth and amazingly best novel as a paradoxical collection of intensely visual but nonetheless entirely unfilmable images.
Immortality is (to borrow one of the novel’s own phrases) “a harmonious collection of uniformity and freedom.” The description seems at once apt and inadequate, for nothing and no one in Kundera’s novel exists in isolation; no utterance, as Mikhail Bakhtin said of Fyodor Dostoevski’s fiction, is without its “intense sideward glance” at someone else’s word. In its context, the above-quoted phrase is ambivalent, a potential joke at the reader’s expense: “I’m glad that we have so many radio stations in France and that at precisely the same time they all say the same thing about the same things. A harmonious combination of uniformity and freedom—what more could mankind ask?” For more, certainly, than the advertising jingles, announcements for fur-coat sales, and news of the latest derogatory biography of Ernest Hemingway that the novel’s first-person narrator, “Milan Kundera,” hears as he turns the dial. It is this profusion of words indiscriminately heard and passively consumed that Kundera, both as novelist and as narrator, seeks to expose and overcome in a novel that is speculative in nature and polyphonic in form, an exploration rather than a representation, a field of play in which themes are inquiries and the characters are experimental selves (or “possible selves,” as Kundera calls them in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kundera’s characters are always enigmas (that is their freedom), as irreducible to any one role as the novels themselves are irreducible to either idea or ideology.
As Kundera points out in The Art of the Novel (1986), the novel’s raison d’être is to discover what only a novel can by exploring its own formal possibilities and by examining existence rather than representing an agreed-upon reality. Opposing totalitarianism in all its guises, capitalist as well as communist, aesthetic as well as sociopolitical, Kundera creates a novelistic form at once meditative and postmodern in order to counter “the termites of reduction” and “the nonthought of received ideas” that characterize the twentieth century. Neither nostalgic nor utopian, he accepts the Heideggerean view that “the essence of man has the form of a question.” In shaping his novels, he turns away from the nonthought of received forms and toward principles of structure arbitrarily and self-consciously drawn from nonnarrative fields: “an architecture based on the number of seven” and the “tone row” of certain fundamental words.
One can attempt to read Immortality along more conventional lines (in much the same way that the film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being chose to “read” Kundera’s novel), in terms of linear plot and mimetic characterizations. Unfortunately for the reader in search of plot and character, Immortality begins prior to the point at which a conventional novel would: not with its (ostensible) main character but with its narrator, “Milan Kundera,” seeing a woman in her early sixties leaving the pool at the health club where he is waiting for his friend, Professor Avenarius, and waving to the lifeguard who has just given her a swimming lesson. Charming and elegant, the gesture belongs to a twenty-year-old, not a sixty- or sixty-five-year-old woman, yet Kundera finds it as captivating as he does comical, making the woman ageless. “And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.” Thus in the space of a page Kundera has introduced three of the novel’s main characters: Agnes, Avenarius, and himself; the old woman will not figure except as a looming absence. He has called attention to the relation between world and word, and he has developed a line of thinking more associational and coincidental than causal. Born of a gesture, Agnes will in turn give birth to an image in Kundera’s mind of a half- empty bed and then to a husband, Paul (a law professor and radio columnist), a daughter (Brigitte), a job (cybernetics expert), a background (Swiss), parents (both dead—it is, Kundera decides, exactly five years since the death of her beloved father, who left her his money, his love of solitude, his ironic faith in God the Computer, and his way of dying); and a sister (Laura, in some ways her opposite, in others her mirror: Both are gifted—one scientifically, the other musically—but neither pursues greatness). Although born of an image and therefore linked to the similarly...
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