Milan Kundera’s new novel Immortality is a tragicomic jeu d’esprit stuffed with references and meanings, and even, you might say, ready-annotated. The story is set in Paris and very simple: Paul is a lawyer with a wife, Agnes, who works for a computer company. They have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. Brigitte is closer to her father than Agnes is. Agnes has a lover, Rubens, whom she has known since she was seventeen and whom she sees only once every few years. Agnes’s younger sister Laura is having an affair with Paul’s friend Bernard, a radio commentator. When Bernard deserts her, she decides to love Paul. Agnes is killed in a motor accident, and Paul marries Laura. Laura starts an affair with Professor Avenarius, who is the friend of the narrator, who is Kundera, and who, in Chapter 1, invents first Agnes and then the rest of the story.
Immortality is like the Pompidou building in Paris. All the things that keep it going are in separate chapters or ducts. The ducts make a lively pattern over the outside of the narrative, which corresponds to the body of the museum. The stuff inside the ducts is philosophy, history, cultural history, Ideengeschichte, literature, aesthetics, politics, semiotics, theories about time and chance, and many enthusiastically illustrated reflections about the nature and role of the erotic. The ducts are gaily colored, definitely part of the entertainment; they are also explanatory notes to help you with the story.
A huge amount is packed into 345 pages, but there is no sense of rush on the one hand or overcondensation—heaviness—on the other. The novel dances along on its toes—on its lightness of being, perhaps. The narrator’s tone is debonair. But his view of the world is pitch black. Professor Avenarius shares it. He goes around at night slashing tires in an apparently idiotic protest against pollution. Though he doesn’t come into the story much, he must be intended to be the hero of it. He deals with the horror of life by turning everything into a joke—a familiar East European strategy, only in this case the enemy is not totalitarian repression, but the Western world with its dreadful new delusion, which Kundera calls Imagology. We will come to Imagology later.
At the end of the novel Kundera celebrates its completion by ordering a bottle of wine to share with Professor Avenarius:
At that moment I understood him at last. If we cannot accept the importance of the world, which considers itself important, if in the midst of that world our laughter finds no echo, we have but one choice: to take the world as a whole and make it the object of our game; to turn it into a toy. Avenarius is playing a game, and for him the game is the only thing of importance in a world without importance. But he knows that his game will not make anyone laugh. When he outlined his proposal to the ecologists, he had no intention of amusing anyone. He only wished to amuse himself.
I said, “You play with the world like a melancholy child who has no little brother….”
Avenarius smiled like a melancholy child. Then he said, “I don’t have a little brother, but I have you.”
Their conversation takes place in the most mundane and modern environment imaginable: by the pool in a glitzy health club at the top of a Paris high-rise, with Muzak blaring from the amplifiers. It is the kind of place Kundera and Agnes hate. But it was where she popped into his head two years earlier when he was waiting, as usual, for Avenarius. He knew that her name must be Agnes—a gentle, old-fashioned name. There is no doubt that she is the novel’s heroine. She is born of a gesture, a peculiarly charming wave of the arm which Kundera observes in an old woman bidding good-bye to her swimming instructor. Kundera invests Agnes with this gesture, but she in turn has copied it from another character in the novel’s past: from her father’s old secretary, who loved him. One day, Agnes sees Laura using it and realizes that “the gesture was available to all and this did not really belong to her.”
This is one of Kundera’s favorite notions: there are words and gestures hanging around in the universe waiting to be used, and with a longer lineage than the people who will use them. They give sex its special value because the words and gestures we use in the act have all been used before; they belong to the primordial stream of being. Sex is older and more precious than what we call love—which is only a latter-day European invention of doubtful worth. Agnes and her lover Rubens understand this, but so did Maupassant. The antique collector in his story “Le Chevelure” is driven mad by the pathos of an old watch as he thinks of the woman who wore it:
Comme j’ai pleuré pendant des nuits entières, sur les pauvres femmes de jadis, si belles, si tendres, si douces, dont les bras se sont ouverts pour le baiser et qui sont mortes! Le baiser est immortel, loi! Il va de lèvre en lèvre, de siècle en siècle, d’âge en âge.—Les hommes le recueillent, le donnent et meurent.*
Agnes is also de jadis. She does not fit into the modern world and suffers from it: the noise, the bustle, the lack of privacy, the people bearing down on her from all sides, even her husband, Paul, and her grown-up daughter, Brigitte, whom she loves. She is aloof, a princess, “a real princess of episode,” her lover thinks, “elegant yet not ostentatious, beautiful without being dazzling, ready for physical love and yet shy; she never bothered [him] with confessions about her private life, and yet she never dramatized her discreet silence or tried to convert it into disquieting mystery.” Agnes tries to drop out of the world as much as she can. Sex with her lover is one way of doing it, a sort of nirvana. Eventually she drops right out by being killed in an accident. It is the alternative strategy to Avenarius’s jokes. Agnes distinguishes between living, which is busy and full of pretension, and being, which is quiet. She longs for quiet. A few pages into the novel Kundera pays tribute to the ineffable beauty of quietness by quoting “the most famous German poem ever written,” Goethe’s “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.”
Goethe inhabits the novel’s conceptual/anecdotal ducts along with Hemingway (they meet in the Beyond and have a very funny conversation about immortality), Rimbaud, Cervantes, Romain Rolland, Mitterrand, Giscard, Jimmy Carter, Tycho Brahe, Napoleon, Dali and Gala, Woodward and Bernstein, and his own passionate admirer, Bettina von Arnim. Bettina has been the Shirley Temple of German literature for a century and a half, ever since she published her correspondence with Goethe (heavily edited by her, Kundera reminds us) under the title Goethe’s Correspondence With A Child. She was no child, but a married bluestocking given to sitting on famous men’s knees in a childlike manner. Generations of upper-middle-class German girls have borne her name which no one in Germany had ever heard until she made it famous.
Rilke put her among the great women lovers of all time and Kundera mocks him for it. He really has it in for Bettina and sends her up with gusto: she is his pill of pills, typical of what is wrong with modern sensibility, and responsible for some of it, too. Kundera may not care for modern sensibility, but he understands it in a way that makes the characters in many modern novels seem premodern, however modern or postmodern those novels may be in form. Since The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera’s characters have had at their disposal a whole new repertoire of feelings, reactions, and motives, including, of course, the counter-feelings, counter-reactions, and counter-motives of the good, or unspoiled, characters like Agnes.
According to Kundera, Bettina von Arnim wasn’t in love with Goethe (or Beethoven, or any of the other famous men she tried to attach herself to) but with immortality, and that is why he calls his book Immortality. She thought she could attain it by being the lover of the great. She was a groupie, and the incarnation of Romanticism, for which Kundera has no time at all. Romanticism is founded on self-regard, self-absorption, solipsism:
Bettina never stepped out of her self. No matter where she went, her self fluttered behind her like a flag. What inspired her to fight for Tyrolean mountaineers was not the mountaineers but the bewitching image of Bettina fighting for the mountaineers. What drove her to love Goethe was not Goethe but the seductive image of the child-Bettina in love with the old poet…. What makes people raise their fists in the air, puts rifles in their hands, drives them to join struggles for just and unjust causes, is not reason but a hyper-trophied soul. It is the fuel without which the motor of history would stop turning and Europe would lie down in the grass and placidly watch clouds sail across the sky.
Exactly what Agnes longs to do.
Kundera has coined the name Imagology for people’s obsession with their image, the habit of seeing themselves as a lover or a revolutionary—or perhaps a pop star or a tycoon or a gangster. You could say that Imagology is a modern variant of the second half of the old firm Sein and Schein, and even—though Kundera doesn’t—that worrying about it is a kind of structuralism; everything is invented by you yourself, depends on you, refers to you; so it can’t have any intrinsic value. What Kundera does say is that Imagology is dire, not only because it leads to ideology and war and revolution, but because it has killed off proper sexual relations. Everyone would like to be seen as a hedonist, says Professor Avenarius, but “nowadays hedonists no longer exist…. Except for me…all of them are eager for admiration and not for pleasure. For appearance and not for reality. Reality no longer means anything to anyone.” Combined with the noise and squalor of the modern world, this is a reason for wanting to stop it and get off: Agnes’s position.
Agnes is noble, sensitive, and alluring, but she has no sense of humor. And so she has to die. Professor Avenarius’s sense of humor enables him to go on living: he also has an expensive Mercedes and a mistress. True, Laura has many of Bettina’s drawbacks including her habitual gesture which is a sort of yearning movement of the arms. But Professor Avenarius makes do with what is available and jokes about it. That, or death, as in Agnes’s case, are the two choices available now. Nothing has changed since The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which Sabina was first dealt a life of lightness and Tomas and Tereza got the automobile accident. It was naive to read Kundera’s penultimate novel as an indictment of Communism. He indicts the whole modern world.
May 30, 1991
How I cried for whole nights over the poor women of days long past, who were so beautiful, so tender, so gentle, whose arms opened for a kiss, and who are now dead. This kiss is immortal—law! It passes from lip to lip, from century to century, from age to age. Men take it in, give it, and die. ↩