On one level you could reduce this novel to the sour grapes of a man who’s getting old and losing his privileged place in the world. Not that this belittles its aspiration or wisdom because how the self changes with age, how the declining façade impacts the core, is a fascinating and rich subject. Kundera suggests the self doesn’t significantly change from within but rather is bullied out of its natural gait by the way people see us, by the images they impose on us. Even we ourselves are constrained to represent our lives with isolated images because memory, he tells us, is incapable of retaining anything but snapshots of time, isolated frames which no effort of will can restore to a detailed and continuous home movie. We are confined to the snapshots memory selects to preserve. And ultimately, in death, we become how people remember us. We become a series of snapshots, an image.
At the time of writing this novel Kundera was pretty much guaranteed immortality. He’s earned his place among the immortals of literature. Understandable then that he should ponder what form this immortality will take. In one episode he has Goethe and Hemingway discuss their posthumous lives. Hemingway is unhappy that his books have become eclipsed by the innumerable biographies of his life. There’s also a fabulous section about Goethe’s relationship with a young girl called Bettina. To Goethe Bettina appears nothing but an episode. Little does he know that this largely inconsequential girl will become one of the editors of his posthumous life.
“No episode is a priori condemned to remain an episode forever, for every event, no matter how trivial, conceals within itself the possibility of sooner or later becoming the cause of other events and thus changing into a story or an adventure. Episodes are like land mines. The majority of them never explode, but the most unremarkable of them may someday turn into a story that will prove fateful to you.” This quote is perhaps the underlying mantra of this novel. It’s a novel of philosophical episodes which playfully mocks the conventions of the novel. “Dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel, because it transforms everything, even the most beautiful pages, even the most surprising scenes and observations merely into steps leading to the final resolution, in which the meaning of everything that preceded is concentrated.” Towards the end of Immortality Milan Kundera is sitting by the same swimming pool which opens the novel with two of his characters. He is surprised these two characters know each other.
Perhaps one test of a masterpiece is that it should improve on a second reading. I really enjoyed this but I didn’t quite love it as much as I did when I first read it. Some elements seemed dated, like his obsessive whining about noise pollution. Guitars and motorbikes especially cited as enemies of civilised life. We now face much worse forms of pollution and his singling out of urban noise levels made him appear a grumpy old man at times. Also some of his views on sex were those of an ageing womaniser who still can’t help seeing women almost exclusively through his libido. As his starting point Kundera shows us an elderly woman performing an alluring gesture she had used as a young girl. He finds the gesture “charming” but for him it’s only the gesture that has charm and elegance “while the body and face no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body.” This of course is the viewpoint of a sexually predatory male. Elderly women for most of us are of course no less capable of performing charming gestures than anyone else. Some of the most beautiful and haunting gestures I have seen have been performed by elderly people. Ironically Kundera’s posthumous life might be influenced in part by these kind of observations of his. He too, like Hemingway, might be complaining to Goethe in an afterlife that he has been misrepresented by biographies.