faber and faber, 1991, 391 p. Translated from the Czech Nesmrtelnost by Peter Kussi.
In the first chapter the narrator tells of seeing a gesture by a woman who was just leaving a swimming pool and which inspired him to write the novel. I was struck by the ageist perspective with which Kundera treats this incident. Be that as it may, gestures and their meanings, their particularity or otherwise, are a feature of the book.
Set mainly in Paris (where Kundera settled after leaving Czechoslovakia) the meat of the book lies in the relationships between Agnes, her husband Paul, and her sister Laura. There are similarities here to the writing of Irène Némirovsky, also an exile in Paris, but at an earlier time. Unlike Némirovsky though, Kundera delves into the deeper past in order to interrogate the means of achieving immortality, in the sense of remaining famous after death, by examining the relationship between Bettina Brentano (later von Arnim) and Goethe, which has mostly been seen through the lens of Brentano’s accounts. Ernest Hemingway too makes appearances – notably in discussions with Goethe in the afterlife – as does Beethoven, and there is a disquisition on Don Quixote. The author himself also features as a character. (Perhaps it was this book which gave Orhan Pamuk that idea.)
The narration comments on itself at various points, and at times does not so much foreshadow as give the later game away. We are told of the death of one character and explore its consequences long before being shown it and that in Part Six a new character will appear and then vanish without trace – as indeed he does; but only to present us with a connection to another that had hitherto not been mentioned (or deliberately hidden.)
The narrator/Kundera notes a historical transition in the toppling of Richard Nixon not by arms nor intrigues but the mere force of questioning, the power of the Eleventh Commandment “Tell the truth.” (Sadly that power no longer seems to work.) He also tells us that nineteenth century writers ended their novels with a marriage not to protect their readers from marital boredom but to save them from intercourse. “All the great European love stories take place in an extra-coital setting…. there was no great love after pre-coital love, and there couldn’t be…. Extra-coital love: a pot on the fire, in which feeling boils to a passion, and makes the lid shake and dance like a soul possessed.” How much of this is an echo of Kundera’s own attitude to intercourse is a matter for conjecture. (Compare “The Unbelievable Prevalence of Bonking” as Iain Banks, in The Crow Road, characterised another of Kundera’s works.)
In amongst all the narrator’s philosophising are sprinkled some bons mots, “A person is nothing but his image” and “I think therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid.”
While at times the prose had the feel of a history book and of the literary work in general – one incident in particular reminded me of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – Immortality was never difficult to read – a tribute to the translator, Peter Kussi, perhaps.
Pedant’s corner:- Saint Vitus’ dance (Vitus’s,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) assininity (asininity,) Avenarius’ (Avenarius’s,) Hals’ (Hals’s.)