A little while ago I mentioned that I was reading Immortality by Milan Kundera for my book group. I can’t remember what stage we were at then, whether the mutiny had taken place… well, tomorrow we’re meeting to discuss Immortality and/or An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, since people were either unable or unwilling to read one or other of these… so, a compromise, we’ve done both and can read either! If you’re not confused by now, then you’re doing better than me. ANYWAY, I have read Immortality – finished this morning – and I hardly know how to respond. It is completely different from anything else I have ever read. That’s a bit of a cliche, I daresay, but for this book it’s true – because Kundera has more or less reinvented the novel. (This is the only Kundera book I’ve read – he might have done this before Immortality, maybe I’ll wait for Claire to pop by, because I know she’s a big Kundera fan.)
It’s very postmodern, that’s the first thing to say. In that, we get bits of narrative from Kundera’s perspective – he mentions his own previous novels, he tells us what he’s going to write in later chapters. The novel (I’m going to use the word, even though it’s not really a novel… or is it?) opens with him seeing a woman making a gesture – he then names her Agnes and invents a story around her, around that gesture. And then weaves it into a literary, historical intertextuality that darts all over the place, including Rubens, Goethe, Hemingway, Beethoven… So many lives intersect and reflect on each other – the real, the fictional, the metafictional. And yet it isn’t formless or baggy – there is a definite feeling of wholeness, a structure – just a very unorthodox one. I haven’t read any reviews of Immortality, but I expect all of them mention this excerpt at some point, from the point of view of Milan Kundera-within-the-novel (who may or may not be the same as Milan Kundera the author, let’s face it): I regret that almost all novels ever written are much too obedient to the rules of unity of action. What I mean to say is that at their core is one single chain of causality related acts and events. These novels are like a narrow street along which someone drives his characters with a whip. 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 it is concentrated. The novel is consumed in the fire of its own tension like a bale of straw. I don’t blame you if you’re rolling your eyes, and reaching out for the nearest Agatha Christie novel – but please don’t be put off straight away. I don’t know why postmodern stuff is so often annoying (it’s less the ‘shock of the new’ as the irksome nature of those who want to cause that shock) but, with Kundera, it isn’t annoying at all. He completely disrupts the novel form, and throws the reading experience into a whole new category, but it isn’t self-indulgent. His writing is so good, he is so very, very perceptive, that it works. It’s as I wrote after the first few pages – he notices things about human behaviour, or perceptions of the self, and finds beautiful or unusual images to demonstrate this. Nothing is overwritten, and nothing is carelessly written. There’s nothing worse than an author thinking they’re being profound, when they are actually writing truisms – I believe Kundera doesn’t fall into this trap. (The only trap he does fall into is being rather too obsessed with sex). But, of course, I haven’t read any philosophers, so…
Now I look at it, the excerpt I wanted to quote isn’t the most original thought in the book – that’s because the most original ones are connected to the tiny things individuals do, his perceptions being mostly filmic – like visual leitmotifs running through the book, through different characters and periods. But here’s a bit, to give you a small idea: 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, and it applies to everything that’s alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.
This isn’t my normal reading territory at all, and early feedback from my book group suggests some definite disdain for Kundera – but I am fascinated, admiring, and rather captivated… at the same time, it will be a while before I read another book by this author. I’m rather bowled over, and need to keep him to dip into now and then. But Immortality is an amazing achievement – just not one to curl up with in front of the fire.