Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Immortality

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.

14 comments:

  1. Doesn't sound like one I'm going to reach for - I'm just not a postmodern fan. That said, your comment that he tells you what he's about to write made me instantly think of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy - and it was considered "racy" for its day.

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  2. This post caught my eye as this is one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. (My favorite by Mr. Kundera is Identity.) I was amazed that a book this 'trippy' never gets boring or self-important. I read somewhere that he was so upset by the movie version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that he decided to write a book that could never be made into a movie. I'm not sure if it's true but I like it :)

    I just finished reading The French Lieutenant's Woman and John Fowles talks about his characters as if he, the author, is getting to know then at the same time we are. It works.

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  3. I have read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and thought it was remarkable but have never come across any more of Kundera's novels. Like Susan I am not a big fan of postmodern novels - I read enough of those at university to satisfy my curiosity for life - but this does sound a fascinating and fulfilling read. Sometimes it's good to be challenged and have to really think about what you're reading. I'll bear this one in mind for future library visits..only when I am feeling especially intelligent, though. Which isn't often!

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  4. As a humble physicist I am far below your erudite discourse on postmodernism, structuralism and that great gaggle of philosophers so beloved of literary academic bun-fights in the 1980's (and still?)

    I too have only read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and like "bookssnob" I was fascinated by it. Your post encourages me to try some more by this author.

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  5. It sounds rather intriguing. I feel I ought to have a look to determine whether I agree or not. His reference to the experience of cats is a hook in itself, and I always have good old Aggie Christie to fall back upon if too traumatised. I think the last good use of meta I saw was Swift's Waterland. Bring on something new!

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  6. I have another one of his books, the most famous one (its an over tired day) The Unbearable Likeness of Being (got there in the end) and am intrigued by him... even more so now.

    How on earth are you going to discuss two books?

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  7. Well it was an interesting meeting! One person (Harriet Devine, in fact) had read both; two of us had only read Immortality; three had read only An Equal Music. But somehow it worked. Opinion very divided on Immortality...

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  8. Simon.. I saw your post yesterday but was running very late so I didn't comment, but starred it to go back to. :)

    Well, I certainly am happy to see you liked it! His other books are all told in the same manner, so if you're looking to find a similar novel, you won't go wrong with any of them.

    You certainly hit the point when you say he isn't indulgent. A lot of postmodern lit writers come off that way because they defy the normal structures of the novel just to defy it. But Kundera does what he does because it's the most effective way of imparting his ideas.

    As opposed to the "normal" novel, where perceptions and notions and essences are borne out of the story, what Kundera does is create his stories and characters around his philosophies. So while his stories from an exterior viewpoint may be specific to his characters, we get the feeling of universality while reading about them. It could be any one or any place but the concepts he speaks of are the core of it.

    I love, for example, how in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he philosophizes about weight vs lightness (and other things). In Laughable Loves, he deals with humor coupled with love. My favourite so far is Ignorance, wherein he looks at nostalgia. I also really loved Immortality, as you already know, although I don't really remember much of it as it's been years. :)

    And, btw, I totally agree with you on his obsession with sex, lol! But because he's so brilliant, he's forgiven. :)

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  9. P.S. Was it 3 of you who read Immortality? How many liked it? I hope it wasn't just you. :) And what did the others in your group think of An Equal Music?

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  10. I have read "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and loved it!
    This one intrigues me immidiatly and at the same time makes me wonder about the definiton of postmodern literature. Let's see!
    I will report...

    I had read recently 'The Music Room' by William Fiennes and liked it very much. Very tender memoir!

    ~V.

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  11. Thanks for your thoughts, Claire, I loved reading them, and I will definitely read more Kundera - after a bit of breathing space!

    Sadly I was the only one who really liked Immortality... one other guy hated it, and Harriet struggled to get through it... we talked more about An Equal Music, which ran the gammut from love to hate as well! Considering there were only six of us there, we managed a wide spectrum of opinion!

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  12. Simon.. I hope you try Ignorance next, after your long break. :) Although they do say his older works such as The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting are his best.. I still have to get to them.

    I have mixed feelings with An Equal Music as well. It was written so "proper"ly that I couldn't criticise its structure; but the voice left me wanting. Although it must also be because I was comparing it to A Suitable Boy which I just thought was brilliant, and An Equal Music was nothing near as wonderful as that. Maybe if it was a different author and I had less expectations I would've enjoyed it more.

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  13. Ignorance will be next, then! Maybe in 2011... or 2012...

    Do pop over and have a look at Harriet's review too - harrietdevine.typepad.com

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  14. I just found your blog as I was perusing (I absolutely love to read) and I recommend The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It's my all-time favorite book and a great starting point for Kundera.

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