“The woman might have been sixty or sixty-five,” begins Milan Kundera, in his 1990 novel Immortality. He describes the stranger, being taught to swim by a young lifeguard. As she leaves, she turns, smiles and waves to her instructor. Kundera says, “At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl!…But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for a moment. There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time.”
And so he begins his long and roundabout journey to explore the concept of immortality – in doing so touching on the lives of Goethe, Hemmingway, Beethoven, Napoleon, and a cast of fictional contemporaries. Goethe’s tale (the triangle relationship between the German poet, his wife and Bettina, a fluttering socialite) is a strong anchor of the book. Kundera’s fictional characters (Agnes, Paul and Laura), mirror these historical figures – the same rough prototypes 200 years apart.
The crux of Kundera’s argument is found in the first few pages:
As a little girl, Agnes used to go for walks with her father, and once she asked him whether he believed in God. Father answered, “I believe in the Creator’s computer.” This answer was so peculiar that the child remembered it.
Agnes thought to herself: the Creator loaded a detailed program into the computer and went away. That God created the world and then left it to a forsaken humanity trying to address him in an echoless void – this idea isn’t new.
To load a program into the computer: this does not mean that the future has been planned down to the last detail, that everything is written “up above.” For example, the program did not specify that in 1815 a battle would be fought near Waterloo and that the French would be defeated, but only that man is aggressive by nature, that he is condemned to wage war, and that technical progress would make war more and more terrible. Everything else is without importance, from the Creator’s point of view, and is only a play of permutations and combinations within a general program, which is not a prophetic anticipation of the future but merely sets the limits of possibilities within which all power of decision has been left to chance.
That was the same with the project we call mankind.
The book is dense with wisdom – Kundera has an uncanny sense for revealing the intricate wiring of human nature, relationships, love and lust. His chapters stand more as philosophical experiments then plot hooks. He even plays with (and masters), the meta theme – including himself as a character in the novel, even going so far as to speak dialogue with his own characters. For a lesser author, this technique would feel contrived, but Kundera (and his translator Peter Kussi) gently weave us in and out of metaphysical realities and observation. His prose is clean, flowing and lucid, yet confronts some very core questions.
There is a beautifully written chapter in which the author oscillates between sleep and wakefulness, all the while listening to the morning news over the radio. The DJ’s voice is incorporated into his dreams and musings.
Chronologically jumbled, jumping down rabbit holes and arching tangents, the book is wildly unconventional. Admittedly, that’s why it took me a long time to read it (6 weeks). A few pages contain enough novel insight to last days.
This is an important book. From a whimsical vision – an old woman waving with youthful zest – Kundera begins his literary exploration.
The parts of us that live outside of our physical shells are immortal. The impressions we make on others, what we write, how we live – our immortality is like a reflection through a tinted glass. We cannot control it, as Kundera illustrates in Goethe’s tale. Bettina’s voluminous letters to Goethe hint at an intimate relationship the poet himself did not endorse. Furthermore, she edited the letters after Goethe’s death to ensure her own spot in the immortal pantheon. It’s only fitting that Kundera’s own novel, published long after Bettina’s passing, comes along and reinterprets the tale, altering our perceptions of the woman (her immortality).
This book is a bit more philosophical and experimental than Unbearable Lightness of Being. I would recommend reading Unbearable Lightness first, if only because it is referenced in the pages of Immortality.
It’s always a joy to read Kundera for me, because I think he truly believes in the power of the written word. He’s not in the game for money or fame (he comes out with a novel roughly every 5-10 years), but there’s a brilliance in every sentence, a zeal for wisdom and truth. For that, he can smugly lay down to rest (doze off to the sounds of the morning radio), his own immortality ensured – he’s made a believer out of me.