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Immortality

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Overview

Milan Kundera's sixth novel springs from a casual gesture of a woman to her swimming instructor, a gesture that cre-ates a character in the mind of a writer named Kundera. Like Flaubert's Emma or Tolstoy's Anna, Kundera's Agnès becomes an object of fascination, of indefinable longing. From that character springs a novel, a gesture of the imagination that both embodies and articulates Milan Kundera's supreme mastery of the novel and its purpose: to explore thoroughly the great ...

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Overview

Milan Kundera's sixth novel springs from a casual gesture of a woman to her swimming instructor, a gesture that cre-ates a character in the mind of a writer named Kundera. Like Flaubert's Emma or Tolstoy's Anna, Kundera's Agnès becomes an object of fascination, of indefinable longing. From that character springs a novel, a gesture of the imagination that both embodies and articulates Milan Kundera's supreme mastery of the novel and its purpose: to explore thoroughly the great themes of existence.

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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Despite its tendency to lecture the reader, "Immortality" never suffers from didacticism. As always, its author proves himself to be a master of orchestrating leitmotifs. . . . One is tempted by Mr. Kundera's writing to revise one's definition of a plot. Instead of calling it an action that arouses expectations, one might describe it as a series of verbal gestures that arouse curiosity. The wonder is that nothing is static in this author's work; everything develops and keeps changing shape. . . . strong and mesmerizing novel. -- New York Times
Washington Post Book World
Ingenious, witty, provocative and formidably intelligent, both a pleasure and a challenge to the reader.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Death and immortality are the interlocking themes of the author's first novel since his 1984 bestseller, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera, himself a prominent character in the circular narrative, here contrasts the troubled, comic relationships among Goethe; his wife, Christiane; and Goethe's much younger friend Bettina von Arnim to the modern-day triangle of three imaginary Parisians: Paul; his wife, Agnes; and Agnes's sister Laura. In response to her father's death, Agnes confronts her own life and discovers that while her marriage has been happy, she has never known passion; Laura, a divorcee, has never experienced the love that goes beyond sex. The object of both sisters' affections is Paul and it becomes clear that their struggle over him will result in a victor and a loser. Kundera offers brilliant meditations on late-20th-century life, but the novel, combining essays, narrative and biographical material, lacks the dramatic tension of his earlier works. Nevertheless his astute observations on topics ranging from the media to Ernest Hemingway in themselves render this work interesting and significant. 100,000 first printing; $100,000 ad/promo; BOMC selection; first serial to the New Yorker. (May)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060932381
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Series: Perennial Classics Series
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 219,840
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.

Biography

For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."

Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."

During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").

The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.

In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."

Good To Know

Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.

Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."

According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brno, Czechoslovakia
    1. Education:
      Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The woman might have been sixty or sixty-five. I was watching her from a deck chair by the pool of my health club, on the top floor of a high-rise that provided a panoramic view of all Paris. I was waiting for Professor Avenarius, whom I'd occasionally meet here for a chat. But Professor Avenarius was late and I kept watching the woman; she was alone in the pool, standing waist-deep in the water, and she kept looking up at the young lifeguard in sweat pants who was teaching her swim. He was giving her orders: she was to hold on to the to the edge of the pool and breathe deeply in and out. She proceeded to do this earnestly, seriously, and it was as if an old steam engine were wheezing from the depths of the water (that idyllic sound, now long forgotten, which to those who never knew it can be described in no better way than the wheezing of an old woman breathing in and out by the edge of a pool). I watched her in fascination. She captivated me by her touchingly comic manner (which the lifeguard also noticed, for the corner of his mouth twitched slightly). Then an acquaintance started talking to me and diverted my attention. When I was ready to observe her once again the lesson was over. She walked around the pool toward the exit. She passed the lifeguard, and after she had gone some three or four steps beyond him, she turned her head smiled, and waved to him. At that instant I felt a pang in my heart! That smile and that gesture belonged to a twenty-year-old girl! Her arm rose with bewitching ease. It was as if she were playfully tossing a brightly colored ball to her lover. That smile and that gesture had charm and elegance,while the face and the body no longer had any charm. It was the charm of a gesture drowning in the charmlessness of the body. But the woman, though she must of course have realized that she was no longer beautiful, forgot that for the moment. There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless. In any case, the instant she turned, smiled, and waved to the young lifeguard (who couldn't control himself and burst out laughing), she was unaware of her age. The essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me. I was strangely moved. And then the word Agnes entered my mind. Agnes. I had never known a woman by that name.

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book
Milan Kundera's sixth novel begins with a casual, elegant gesture of a woman to her swimming instructor, a gesture that creates a character -- Agnes -- in the mind of a writer named Kundera. A novel in seven parts, Immortality alternates the stories of Agnes, her husband Paul, and her sister Laura with a curious historical footnote, the story of the relationship between Goethe and Bettina von Arnim. The novel portrays Goethe and Ernest Hemingway conversing in the afterlife, and the narrator (named Kundera) carrying on an important philosophical discussion with the clear-eyed Professor Avenarius. Through his characters, Kundera reflects on modem life and Western society and culture, exploring the cult of sentimentality, the difference between the individual self and the individual's public image, the conflict between reality and appearance, the varieties of love and sexual desire, the importance of fame and celebrity, and the all too human longing for immortality. Each of Kundera's characters searches for a way to ensure his survival in the memory of others and, if necessary, at the expense of someone else's immortality. Like Flaubert's Emma and Tolstoy's Anna, Kundera's Agnes herself becomes an object of fascination, of indefinable longing. From a single gesture springs a character and a novel, themselves gestures of the imagination that both embody and articulate Kundera's supreme mastery of the novel and its purpose: to thoroughly explore the great themes of existence. Topics for Discussion
  • What significance does Kundera ascribe to immortality? Goethe tells Hemingway, "Immortality means eternal trial." In what waysmight this be true, not only for such famous artists as Goethe, Hemingway, and Beethoven, but for Agnes, Paul, and each of us? How do Kundera's "minor immortality," "great immortality," and "ridiculous immortality" differ, from each other?
  • What roles does death play in the novel? What kinds of death occur, and what is the importance of each? In what ways does death "form an inseparable pair" with immortality?
  • Kundera writes, "Without the faith that our face expresses our self, without that basic illusion, that archillusion, we cannot live, or at least we cannot take life seriously." In what ways do the concept of the individual self and its expression gather importance in the novel? How does a notion of one's self ("mere illusion, ungraspable, indescribable," claims Paul) differ from a notion of one's image in the eyes of others ("the only reality, all too easily graspable and describable")?
  • What is the importance of solitude to Agnes and to other characters? What does it consist of for each? How is solitude related to the longing for immortality? What is the importance of the distinction that Agnes makes between living and being?
  • In the sections dealing with Goethe and Hemingway and those dealing with Agnes, Paul, and Laura, celebrity and fame take on increasing importance. To what extent is immortality a function of celebrity? Has celebrity replaced immortality in the twentieth century? If so, with what consequences?
  • Agnes's and Paul's differing attitudes toward their bodies, we are told, "revealed the difference between the male and female lot in life." What aspects of that difference does Kundera identify? To what extent -- and why -- do you agree or disagree with Kundera's understanding of that difference?
  • What is the "gradual, general, planetary transformation of ideology into imagology" about which Kundera writes in Part Three? What does he mean by "imagology"? How does he see it as characterizing our time? What effects does it have on individuals, politics, the arts, and society in general?
  • Do you agree or disagree -- and why -- with what appears to be Kundera's final judgment, prompted by the allegory of Goethe and Beethoven at Teplitz, that "those who create... deserve more respect that those who rule ... that creativity means more than power, art more than politics; that works of art, not wars or aristocratic costume balls, are immortal"? How is this judgment illustrated or represented in the novel?
  • To what extent do the characters' anxieties result from their being expatriates (Agnes from Switzerland and Kundera from Czechoslovakia, for example)? How do they deal with being expatriates? To what extent may Kundera be saying that everyone in the twentieth century is an expatriate? From where or what?
  • In Part Three, Kundera writes, "There are two methods for cultivating the uniqueness of the self in a world in which it is increasingly difficult "for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self." What are those two methods; with which characters are they associated; and how are they demonstrated or illustrated? What are the risks and rewards of each?
  • How do Agnes, Avenarius, Paul, Laura, and others respond to the question posed in Part Five: "How to live in a world with which you disagree"? How would you respond to that question?
  • In what he calls "this short history" of the gesture that Agnes adopted from her father's secretary and Laura adopted from Agnes, Kundera claims that "we can recognize the mechanism determining the relationship of the two sisters..." What is that mechanism, and how is it determined by gesture? How are other relational mechanisms -- that between Goethe and Bettina, for example -- revealed or determined by gestures?

About the Author: The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and has lived in France, his second homeland, for more than twenty years. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Life is Elsewhere, Farewell Walt, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short story collection Laughable Loves -- all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels, Slowness and Identity, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, were originally written in French.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2005

    One of the masterpieces of philosohpical literature in the 20th century

    This one is a stunning masterpiece. Even in Kundera's brilliant oeuvre, it stands out. Kundera is one of the best observers of our modern life -both on a micro- and macro-level- and one of today's few noteworthy existentialists. While he is addressing complex issues in a very thoughtful and deep way, he manages to do so in a stunningly beautiful language and hugely enjoyable form. As if this would not suffice to make Immortality an outstanding read, Kundera also is one of the most experimental and innovative writers, redefining the rules of modern storytelling. If you think this review is too enthousiastic...read the book. I bet you agree: There is barely anything that comes even close to it in the late 20th century.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2001

    A beautiful if not sublime gesture

    Writers usually begin with a story and then tease out themes and ideas from the plot. Kundera does the opposite; he begins with ideas, threading them together to form a story. This novel, and the characters within it, seem to exist (in fact Kundera strongly hints at this) as a mere background for those ideas. This isn't a criticism, however; the ideas are worthy and intriguing, such as time, modernism and sex, and the characters are still convincing (especially Agnes, who seems to be a cipher for Kundera). Many of the conclusions Kundera seems to draw are somewhat dismal, yet the novel still evokes a sense of beauty and sometimes even whimsy. The main reason I didn't give it 5 stars is because it doesn't quite reach the heights of his most famous novel: The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2010

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