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Review of Immortality by Milan Kundera

I’d read one Kundera novel before I tackled this one – The Unbearable Lightness of Being and enjoyed it quite a bit. It was different from my usual fantasy fare – intimate, understated, delicate, intelligent (not that fantasy novels can’t be any of those things, especially the latter) – and that was probably a large part of why I liked it.

I also liked Immortality – for the same qualities. Where The Unbearable Lightness of Being is set in Prague, the author’s native home, this novel is set in Paris, the author’s adoptive home. It deals primarily with relationships – the relationships of the somewhat unhappy Agnes, and also of her husband and sister; and also those of Goethe and his supposed love, Bettina. It also deals with the author himself, who is a character in his own novel – although it might be more accurate to say that the characters are people in his own life. And it deals with a gesture.

The book begins with the author noticing a gesture – a carefree, backward-looking wave of a young woman performed by an old woman. This leads him to muse on the relative uniqueness and longevity of gestures and people. People, he thinks, are the vessels of gestures. This carefree wave comes to be on a par with the characters in the novel – transmitted from one to another, and living on because of this.

The characters find their genesis in the early morning drowsy thoughts of the author. In one chapter, the author imagines a woman, lying in bed like himself, savouring the absence of her husband; he tries to think what motivates her. In the next chapter, she has become, without further elucidation, the novel’s protagonist. Although the author never comes face to face with Agnes, he meets her husband and sister; he spends time with his friend, Professor Avenarius, who is also a friend of theirs. He asks the professor about them, hoping to understand what they have done and why.

At one point, Avenarius asks what he is planning to call the novel he is working on (the novel you’re reading); the author says he wants to call it The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to which the professor replies, I think someone already wrote that! and the author responds that it was him.

The novel describes and discusses Goethe and his relationship with a young devotee, Bettina. Goethe – according to what is written here – didn’t care for her much and saw her as a danger to his reputation and legacy. She seems to have been obsessed with Goethe and wrote him letters about love, planning to publish them after his death – along with various self-serving emendations. Goethe is also shown having conversations with Hemingway in the afterlife.

The whole novel is a gentle but mesmerising musing on the nature of the desire for immortality, the desire to control one’s reputation, and how the dead are remembered. I feel that the book doesn’t offer any particular thesis, but just tries to offer a subtly fantastical, psychologically realistic, multi-faceted picture of various intimately or tenuously interconnected lives. Despite the fact that it jumps between the present day narrative and its pseudo-biography of Goethe and even jumps back and forth within the foreground story, despite the fact that it doesn’t so much blur as consider irrelevant the boundaries between fact and fiction, it is beautifully readable from start to finish.

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gouache

gouache /gwɑʃ, guˈɑʃ; Fr. gwaʃ/

–noun, plural gouach·es  /ˈgwɑʃɪz, guˈɑʃɪz; Fr. ˈgwaʃ/
1. a technique of painting with opaque watercolors prepared with gum.
2. an opaque color used in painting a gouache.
3. a work painted using gouache.

Origin:
1880–85; < F < It guazzo place where there is water ≪ L aquātiō, deriv. of aqua water

—Can be confused: gauche, gouache.

Source: Dictionary.com.

While he was still at school … he painted hundreds of gouache pictures and was famous among his school friends for his caricatures of teachers.

Source: Immortality by Milan Kundera.

charterhouse

Char·ter·house /ˈtʃɑrtərˌhaʊs/

–noun, plural -hous·es  /-ˌhaʊzɪz/
1. a Carthusian monastery.
2. the hospital and charitable institution founded in London, in 1611, on the site of a Carthusian monastery.
3. the public school into which this hospital was converted.
4. the modern heir of this school, now located in Surrey.

Origin:
1400–50; late ME < AF chartrouse (taken as charter + house), after Chatrousse, village in Dauphiné near which the order was founded; see Carthusian, whence the first r of the AF word

Source: Dictionary.com.

Agnes recalled a sentence from Stendahl’s novel: “Il se retira à la chartreuse de Parme.” Fabrice left; he retired to the charterhouse of Parma. No charterhouse is mentioned anywhere else in the novel, and yet that single sentence on the last page is so important that Stendahl used it for the title; because the real goal of all Fabrice’s adventures was the charterhouse, a place secluded from people and the world.

Source: Immortality by Milan Kundera.

epigone

ep·i·gone /ˈɛpɪˌgoʊn/

–noun
an undistinguished imitator, follower, or successor of an important writer, painter, etc.

Also, ep·i·gon  /ˈɛpɪˌgɒn/

Origin:
1860–65; < L epigonus < Gk epígonos (one) born afterward, equiv. to epi– epi- + –gonos, akin to gígnesthai to be born

—Related forms
ep·i·gon·ic /ˌɛpɪˈgɒnɪk/, adjective
e·pig·o·nism /ɪˈpɪgəˌnɪzəm, ɛˈpɪg-, ˈɛpəˌgoʊnɪzɪm, -ˌgɒnɪz-/, noun

Source: Dictionary.com.

Epigones are always more radical than their inspirers. For example, I am reading a very thorough French biography of Beethoven published in the 1960s. There the author speaks directly of Goethe’s “cowardice,” his “servility,” his “senile fear of everything new in literature and aesthetics,” etc., etc. Bettina, on the other hand, is endowed with “clairvoyance and prophetic ability, which almost give her the stature of a genius.”

Source: Immortality by Milan Kundera.