1/18/14 Albion, CA: Immortality is perhaps the one book that violates this idea that I’ve never re-read my favorites. I’ve probably read this book three or four times through. I absolutely adore it. It was the first of Milan Kundera’s work I read, which I read as a high school senior. The teacher of the class presented the work to us with a prediction: “Some of you will read this book and like it fine. Some of you will read this book and immediately go on to read every single book this author has ever written.” I’ve read every book Milan Kundera has ever published.
Of all of those books, though, my heart still lies with Immortality. Not just because it was the first one, but because I love its complexity. Books like Slowness or Identity explore a single theme in depth. Immortality folds in so many philosophical explorations. And I’ve always wanted to be able to write that way.
Reading this book again has been one of the most exciting propositions of this project.
2/2/14 Alexandria, VA: I savored this book from the start. Kundera once wrote of the duty of the novelist in our era to treat every line as a work of poetry. A daunting task for a writer, and a command to the reader to pay full attention. Immortality reminds me to love the written word. It shames me as a writer and yet is such a joy to read that it makes me want to write and write and write. These are familiar paths that I walked upon previous journeys through this book. Immortality argues for the path versus the highway, and I would say true enjoyment of a book is walking an Alpine path; yet so many books I’ve read are highways— paging through the Kindle on the treadmill.
One new experience I had in reading the book this time was that I found Anges insufferable. I think as a teenager and as a collegiate I empathized with Agnes. Maybe I was attracted to her as the opposite of the women I was dating in my life at the time— they were all Lauras. The first few chapters in January I found myself rolling my eyes at Agnes and I wondered if Immortality would disappoint.
It didn’t. The joy of Kundera’s shifting between narrative lenses is palpable. He creates characters, he interacts with characters, he dredges characters up from history and re-animates them to a philosophical point. And he, as the author, is fully a character. But it is not a pretense. He does not create an “authorial” character. It’s just him. With a grandmother in Moravia. He describes himself and his process and it is fully a part of the work. I love it. Goethe explains to Hemingway: “You know perfectly well… We are but the frivolous fantasy of a novelist…” I want to write like this— knitting together the self and one’s fiction.
Each book in this project will dredge up old memories, I suppose. In this case there were two clear memories that resurfaced. The first was simply a notecard on the wall of my college apartment bedroom that said, in Sharpie, “The brilliant ally of his own gravediggers.” I loved that turn of phrase. The second was the paper I wrote in high school English Literature, when I first read this book. In it, I posited that Kundera and Anges were the nuclei of two connected atoms (I was also in AP Chemistry at the time). Paul and Laura and Bernard Bertrand and Professor Avenarius (Professor Avenarius!) were the electrons swirling between them. But those two nuclei could never touch. The fully fictional Agnes and the fully real Kundera. All nodes between were shades of fiction. Now that’s how you write a novel.
I’ve read every book Kundera has ever written. And I’ve loved most of them. I have found myself wishing, however, that he would give us another Immortality. Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance were all lovely little books, but they felt like sketches in comparison. Each exorcising a tiny demon. I want an exegesis.
On a process note: It’s been hard to find the time to read! Much less to mindfully listen to music or watch a movie. January was a busy month. I need to pick up the pace! I’m remembering books that were left off the list at a faster rate than I am reading.