The Hallowed Halls of Greatness
Since time immemorial, immortality has been a subject of fascination. The search for immortality has set out the famous conquest for the fountain of youth which has paradoxically become a life-long quest. It is no surprise that immortality has become the subject of many a literary work and film. The obsession endures. But is immortality meant to be interpreted as a perpetuity of physical manifestation? Milan Kundera’s Immortality gives a different and deeper insight.
Milan Kundera’s dive into the somewhat familiar subject of Immortality started in the most unusual settings, the swimming pool. The primary narrator, Kundera himself, witnessed a sensual yet sweet physical gesture made by a woman towards her lifeguard-cum-swimming instructor. This subtle action piqued his interest, which eventually developed into an obsession about the woman, Agnes. Who’d ever imagine that such a simple gesture would branch out into an enthralling tale that sucks you into its very heart.
“Just imagine living in a world without mirrors. You’d dream about your face and imagine it as an outer reflection of what is inside you. And then, when you reached forty, someone put a mirror before you for the first time in your life. Imagine your fright! You’d see the face of a stranger. And you’d know quite clearly what you are unable to grasp: your face is not you.” ~ Milan Kundera, Immortality
When we pass away, how are we going to be remembered? This is one of many questions we ask ourselves from time and time again. It sounds rhetorical at times as it is shrouded in a veil of obscurity and enigma. Will we be remembered by our achievement? Will we be remembered by how we were perceived? Will we be remembered by the world? Or will we simply fade in the oblivion, a keepsake tucked in vignettes? These questions make us think. Thinking is integral in understanding Immortality.
Immortality is a paradox, on the surface. Whilst the story is seemingly about perpetuity, it is thoroughly preoccupied with death. The active presence of death permeates throughout the story. Most of the primary characters like Goethe and Ernest Hemingway are dead. Some of the characters die over the course of the story. But through Kundera’s cunning, death and immortality are taken as an inseparable pair, a peculiar duo that forms the backbone of the story.
From one paradox another one is born. Despite the novel’s preoccupation with death, which could make one feel nauseated, the story rarely felt subdued or melodramatic. A different feeling sprang out of the grotesqueries where immortality and death converged. Kundera, the master storyteller that he is, used his extensive wisdom to conduct an orchestra which is reverberating with life. It partakes of the legacies that lives on, that outlives us.
As the story moves forward, Kundera intermittently weaves new characters into the tapestry. A bigger but obscure picture is slowly drawn with powerful words. The story indulges into psychology and history. Images are developed, provoking the readers’ mind. Different shapes are conjured, and vivid imagery is evoked, elevating the narrative into the hallowed halls of literary greatness.
“There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most the time we are ageless.” ~ Milan Kundera, Immortalit
Plodding down the path of immortality, one of the book’s major motifs revolves around famous artists. Alternating between chapters in Agnes’ life are episodes in Goethe’s life and his interactions with writers and artists of his time, such as Ernest Hemingway. Goethe’s life was a projection of how one’s work is inevitably altered with the passing of time. His life is also an allegory of a different form of immortality, that of intellectual and artistic type.
The unconventionality of Kundera’s wisdom and storytelling flowed diaphanously in Immortality. Kundera is not one to be taken in by the conventionality of art, in any of its manifestations. As such, Immortality doesn’t possess that linearity of plot which most literary works have; it is a challenge isolating the novel into one literary box.
Rather than formulaic, the plot is dynamic, – it continuously evolves as it moves forward. Proactive is not limited to the plot as many an element of the novel keeps changing shape. These elements were wonderfully sewn together by Kundera’s capable hands into an avant-garde narrative. Everything was masterfully designed. Each element was skillfully put together. Breaks were diligently placed in crucial junctures in the story to keep the reader engaged.
The timeline gets convoluted and confusing. The jump from the present to the past gets in the way of the reader and the appreciation of the story. But this is a minor misgiving in a narrative that is flourishing with life and color. The book’s wonderful is a thing of beauty, as expected from a storyteller of Kundera’s caliber.
“We got our names, too, merely by accident. We don’t know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don’t understand our name at all. we don’t know its history, and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it as if we thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration.” ~ Milan Kundera, Immortality
Through his works, the immortality of Milan Kundera’s literary prowess is anything but guaranteed. His works defy literary conventions; to be able to project an entire narrative through a single gesture is sheer genius. Immortality jumps out of the box. Kundera told two different stories in two different periods to redefine the word. There might have been bumps along the way, but Kundera’s savvy and acuity proved superior to everything.
Kundera’s works defy norms for he has mastered the craft of conjuring unconventional masterpieces from conventional elements. Immortality is one testament to this enduring talent.
It is quite difficult to find a book that keeps you engaged from start to finish. The flexibility of Kundera’s writing and his eccentric storytelling, when merged, create a syncopating harmony that makes the reader dance to its beats. With The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which is quite a challenging read) and Immortality, I was introduced into a different facet of literature that challenges my reading wits.
Kundera’s art (or rather writing) is bold, if not eccentric; powerful, if not enigmatic; astute, if not choleric. With these two works, I am enamored to read more of his works. Maybe The Book of Laughter and Forgetting? Let us see what the future holds.
Author: Milan Kundera
Translator: Peter Kussi
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publishing Date: 1992
Number of Pages: 345
Genre: Novel, Fiction, Allegorical
Milan Kundera’s sixth novel springs from a casual gesture of a woman to her swimming instructor, a gesture that creates a character in the mind of a writer named Kundera. Like Flaubert’s Emma or Tolstoy’s Anna, Kundera’s Agnes becomes an object of fascination, of indefinable longing. From that character springs a novel, a gesture of the imagination that both embodies and articulates Milan Kundera’s supreme mastery of the novel and its purpose: to thoroughly explore the great themes of existence.
About the Author
(Photo by Goodreads) Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia to a middle-class family.
He completed his secondary school studies at Gymnázium třída Kapitána Jaroše in Brno in 1948. At Charles University in Prague, Kundera studied literature and aesthetics for two terms. He transferred to the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, attending his first lectures in film direction and script writing. Political interferences disrupted his studies in 1950. He was kicked out of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, a party he was a member of since his teenaged years, for “anti-party activities.”
After graduating from the Academy in 1952, Kundera was appointed by the academy as a lecturer in world literature. In 1967, he published Žert (The Joke), his first novel. The novel’s satirical nature led to his blacklisting in Czechoslovakia and his works being banned there. His second novel was initially published in French as La vie est ailleurs (Life is Elsewhere) in 1973 before being republished in Czech as Život je jinde in 1979.
In 1975, Kundera permanently moved to France where he published his fourth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in 1979, the same year he was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship. He was granted French citizenship two years later. His other works include The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Immortality (1990) and The Festival of Insignificance (2014).
Milan Kundera has also won several awards such as the 1985 Jerusalem Prize, and the 2000 international Herder Prize. In 1987, he won The Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He was also awarded the Czech State Literature Prize in 2007, the Ovid Prize in 2011 and the Prix Mondial Cino Del Duca in 2009.
He currently resides in France but maintains contact with his Czech and Slovakian friends, rarely returning to his homeland.