Immortality, by Milan Kundera - book review
My rating: 3/5
This is one of those novels that I read and am not quite sure what I am reading. Then, the reading ends and I’m not at all sure of what I have read. Then, I attempt the delicate operation of mentally piecing together all the characters, ideas, storylines, dichotomies, and the exercise is so infructuous that I wonder if really, do the pieces fit together, or is it all just a jumble of mismatched parts that only share a common color?
What can I say about this book? The title doesn’t lie, for one. It is about immortality, that which remains when the person has gone, and persists through the ages a relatively long time. Kundera starts with a gesture offered by a woman at a swimming pool, a type of wave that seems to be throwing a ball into the air. The gesture is not that of the elderly woman doing it but more that of a young woman, a come-hither wave that invites to unspecified mysterious glee. Kundera (he actually puts himself into the novel as a wine-drinking swimming-pool visiting guy) states that there are more people in the world than ideas and gestures, so these ideas and gestures get borrowed around a lot and the people who may think they have their own ideas and gestures are deluding themselves. He sets out to illustrate this.
So, we encounter Agnes, who has a head that bores downwards and an ass that points to the heavens. Her sister Laura is the opposite, with an ass that bears her toward the ground and a head that seeks to go ever higher. We enjoy a diversion in the past where Goethe holds at bay a young would-be mistress Bettina who is intent on writing his biography and thus steal his grasp on immortality. We meet Paul, Agnes’ husband who hosts a cultural television show but upholds the sanctity of the media image over cultural complexity, and who is the aid of his own executioners. There is Rubens, whose sexual life serves to highlight the five phases of erotic in-bed dialogue (athletic mutism, metaphore, truthful obscenity, hearsay, and mysticism). There’s Avenarius, ecologist who slashes tires to rid the city of the pervasive movement of cars. Through these characters, Kundera traces lines and highlights hidden structure.
I read this book entirely in the bath, all 500 or so pages of it, after putting into place a technique for toweling off my forearms and holding the book directly above the bath water with my elbows resting on the bath bottom. I suspect that it’s a good read for a bath, because it requires relaxation to indulge the style, given to massive, aimless digressions and a pace that often trudges forward ever so slowly. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this read, and I wonder how much of it I’ll remember tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.