The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 30 November 2017


by Milan Kundera

We're all going to live forever, right? We live our lives as if we're all immortal. There are few people who really grasp what it means to be mortal. And, yet, we all get there someday. We simply cannot envision the extinction of death. Our entire society is geared toward denial of the ephemeral nature of our very existence. Indeed, we might act differently if we understood what is really going on. Many of us, however, crave the immortality of fame, or of fortune, or merely the notion that we will leave something of ourselves behind, some creative memento, art, music, diaries, our Beanie Baby collections. For the vast majority of humankind, immortality merely means having kids.

In this 1990 novel, Kundera meditates on the nature of human existence within the sea of common human exeperience. And, through that window, he views the voluntary or natural tendencies toward immortality (and we don't mean the immortality of vampires and zombies). Starting small enough, observing one day a small romantic gesture, a woman waving as she glances over her shoulder, the author ponders the common vocabulary of gestures, seeing how the gestures live through us, rather than we through gestures. Kundera invents the life of Agnes, a middle aged woman living in Paris, a woman with family, personality, history and desires. Her story flows with his contemplation of character, gesture and event in her life and ours. He nestles Agnes in a big soft notion of existence as if existence was the immortal character and Agnes just its medium.

To drive home his point, Kundera interleaves the story of Bettina von Arnim, a young woman who fell in love with the great German writer Goethe. Her devotion to him, to his fame and his legacy, were here own path to immortality. Bettina's carefully excerpted diaries and letters hitched her own life and career on to that of the famous author. Goethe contemplates how he surrenders his immortality to her. He has posthumous conversations with Hemingway. They discuss how fame has a life of its own and what it means to be a dead author.

Finally, Kundera seems to veer off course, by telling the story of Rubens (not the painter but a man nicknamed after the painter), a man with a lively romantic life and dashed artistic dreams. We wonder where Rubens came from and where he fits into this story. Indeed, by now the author himself resides in his imagined story. But we are in the deft hands of an intricate and subtle storyteller. The whole novel casts an odd spell and one feels as if we've been offered the chance to consider rather lofty notions of what it means to be a living being in a nearly immortal sea of Time. It is a challenging path we've been led along, but it is punctuated by humor, earthy eroticism, and a wry humanity.

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Also by Kundera: [Slowness]