Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs @ Imperial War Museum London

Making a new world

For the past year or so, Imperial War Museum London has given over its third floor to four related but very different exhibitions marking the end of the First World War a hundred years ago.

The four are presented under the overarching title of Making A New World, a major season which has also included a programme of live music, performances and public debates, all addressing aspects of the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Here’s the promotional video of the season as a whole.

The biggest of the four exhibitions is titled Renewal: Life after the First World War in photographs. )Over the next few days I’ll review the other exhibitions.)

Renewal: Life after the First World War in photographs

In the years after the First World War, countries, cities and individuals had to regenerate and rebuild themselves on an extraordinary scale.

The exhibition uses poignant and evocative photos, diagrams, posters and objects from IWM’s vast collections to convey the challenges and experiences of peace which were faced by soldiers, societies, and Europe as a whole.

Armistice celebrations in Birmingham, 1918 IWM (Q 63690)

Armistice celebrations in Birmingham, 1918 IWM (Q 63690)

Each individual photograph or object comes with an informative wall label, which is well worth reading and pondering.

There are about 130 objects in all, covering a wide range of subjects and formats, from a big map of Europe, black-and-white footage of the ruined town of Ypres, a wall-high reproduction of architects’ designs for new homes fit for heroes, through to recruiting posters for the army, an example of a prosthetic leg made for an amputee, photos of demobbed soldiers, diplomats, abandoned munitions, and – isolated and forlorn – a broken ceremonial sword once belonging to a German officer.

Room one – Reconstructing the individual

More than 70 million fought in the First World War, some 16 million died, tens of millions were displaced. In Britain, many soldiers wanted to return home as soon as possible, although many were injured and condemned to spend the rest of their lives in care homes. There was suddenly a crying need for houses and jobs for all the demobilised men.

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in photographs © IWM

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs © IWM

Topics in this room include:

Returning Home

Including photos of demobilisation offices, crowds of soldiers being demobilised. Sometimes the hold-ups led to frustration and there demobilisation riots in some places.

Regaining Freedom

Around eight million soldiers became prisoners of war during the conflict. Allied prisoners were released immediately upon the Armistice but were often given little help. One poignant little case contains a pair of wooden clogs given to a returning British POW who had no boots by a Belgian peasant, which the Brit obviously kept to the end of his days and donated.

Pair of clogs given by a sympathetic Belgian to a shoeless British prisoner

Pair of clogs given by a sympathetic Belgian to a shoeless British prisoner

In contrast, prisoners from the defeated nations were only slowly released, some being kept in captivity for up to two years after the war ended. France, in particular, was tough on the Germans, forcing German POWs to help rebuild all the villages and towns the war had ruined. There is a photo of German POWs rebuilding the Basilica of St Quentin in 1919, and many other photos showing the complete devastation of northern France and Belgium

Horses and men of 1st Anzac Corps on their way past the ruins of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall in Ypres © IWM E(AUS) 1122

Horses and men of 1st Anzac Corps on their way past the ruins of the Cathedral and Cloth Hall in Ypres © IWM E(AUS) 1122

Starting Again

The theme of rebuilding runs through the show. Many photographs show citizens who had fled the fighting returning home and setting up house again amid the rubble. There are photos of the new wooden houses built among the ruins of Ypres, and the first tobacconists shop blossoming among the rubble.

Apparently, Winston Churchill had suggested that Ypres be left a rubble-strewn ruin as testimony to the men who lost their lives there, but the people -as the commentary wryly puts it – didn’t go along with his suggestion, and soon began rebuilding.

Soldiering On

Many soldiers found it hard to adjust to peacetime, both psychologically and, in practical terms, found it hard to get work. There was a major economic slump after the war. By late 1919, with most of the British forces demobilised, many men decided to re-enlist in the new, smaller, more professional British Army, Navy and Air Force, since it offered the best hope of steady work, plus opportunities to travel and ‘see the world’ which were not available to most of their working class peers. Thus the exhibition contains some colourful 1920s posters singing the praises of a career in the forces.

See the World 1919 recruitment poster

See the World 1919 recruitment poster

Restoring Independence

Many men had been blinded in the war. They couldn’t return to their old jobs and risked poverty and isolation if left to themselves. A section of the show is devoted to the work of St Dunstan’s Lodge in Regent’s Park, a charity devoted to helping blind ex-soldiers. The photos belonged to Dorothy Irving-Bell, a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse who worked with blind patients and whose album amounts to a social history of the charity.

The black and white photos of rows of smartly dressed young man, every one of whom has been blinded for his country, some with bandages over their eyes, others wearing dark glasses, was quite upsetting. But something snapped in me when I saw the colour photos of blind men being shown how to weave tennis nets and fishing nets, from which they could eke a living. God, the waste. The waste on a scale we just can’t conceive today. It’s what makes John Singer Sargent’s painting, Gassed, almost unbearably moving.

The charity still exists and supports blind veterans of the services.

Repairing the body

Not just eyes, every conceivable part of the human body had been eviscerated, gouged, melted and burned during the war. A section documents the advances in medical techniques which helped soldiers survive at the front, and then took care of them at home. This included a sequence about the doctors, nurses and patients at Roehampton which specialised in men who had lost a limb. Over 41,000 men lost limbs during the war.

Roehampton, patients being taught to use their new artificial limbs © IWM (Q 33690)

Roehampton, patients being taught to use their new artificial limbs © IWM (Q 33690)

Rejoining Society

Disabled soldiers received state pensions but most others needed help registering for work, and claiming other benefits. This section displays some of the forms and documents required by the state or the many private charities which were set up to help soldiers.

Room two – A country fit for heroes?

Rebuilding society

British servicemen returned home to find a country short of houses (when has Britain not been short of houses?) The British economy almost immediately went into a slump. Fearing discontent on a large scale might trigger a Bolshevik-style revolution, the authorities move quickly, pledging to build thousands of homes for for heroes, and introducing a generous new unemployment benefit scheme.

There is a fascinating sequence of photos showing land being cleared at Becontree in Dagenham, and then a huge new estate being built, using new materials and modern (though not Modernist) designs.

Rebuild or preserve

Of course the problem of building in Britain was as nothing to the challenge facing the authorities in those parts of northern France and Belgium which had been devastated by the war. Here the authorities had to decide whether to rebuild a city like Ypres, brick for brick, or start again from scratch. The French did, in fact, leave a couple of villages in utter ruins, as a reminder of the pointlessness of war, and we are shown photos of them, Omes and Fleury, ‘the villages that died for France’.

A refugee family returning to Amiens, 17 September 1918 © IWM (Q 11341)

A refugee family returning to Amiens, 17 September 1918 © IWM (Q 11341)

This room contains a slideshow on a big monitor showing photos taken by Louise Briggs, a British traveller who visited Belgium many times after the war, photographing the ruins then the rebuilding of Ypres, along with nearby villages and war cemeteries.

It comes as a shock to learn from the captions to several of these photos, that immediately the war ended the tourists started to arrive. Obviously not quite ‘tourist’ in the way we think of today, but plenty of British people wanted to come and see the sites where their sons or brothers or husbands had fought and died or been wounded. Some of the first buildings erected in post-war Ypres were makeshift wooden hotels for just such a clientele. Postcards were quickly manufactured showing views of famous battlefields, along with maps and other merchandising. Hard not to find this ghoulish.

Rudyard Kipling, much condemned now for his racism and imperialism, wrote a number of powerful stories about the Great War and its shell-shocked victims. And one really haunting story about a British woman who makes the pilgrimage to the grave of her dead son.

New Opportunities

When the war ended all sides found themselves with vast amounts of munitions and arms and equipment on their hands. The tens of thousands of cars and lorries could be quickly converted for civilian use, but what about the primitive airplanes of the war?

A fascinating little sequence is devoted to explaining the rise of the Handley Page Transport Co which built its first plane in 1909, was commissioned to make heavier ‘bombers’ during the war, and then very impressively converted these to carry passengers, and thus became one of the first manufacturers of long-range passenger planes. Photos show the cramped interiors of these earliest passenger plans, alongside altogether more glossy and stylish 1920s posters for Imperial Airways, formed in 1924.

Room three – Reshaping the world

The world which emerged from the war was shaped by the peace conference of 191-20 and the series of treaties which emerged from it and continued to be negotiated into the 1920s. Thousands of books have been written about the compromises, haste and bad decisions made at the conferences. Most controversially, the defeated nations didn’t have representatives present and so were forced to sign to all kinds of conditions which they would have rejected, and which caused lasting resentment among their populations, such as the massive reparations Germany had to pay France, as well as the big chunks of territory Germany lost to France in the West and Poland in the East.

Peace treaties

One wall of this room is dominated by huge photos of the leaders of the victorious allies, Lloyd George of Britain, Woodrow Wilson of America, Clemenceau of France.

Continuing Conflict

But it is often forgotten that the Armistice did not end the fighting across huge swathes of Europe and Asia Minor. The Russian Revolution led to a civil war which raged across that huge country until 1922. In 1920 Russia invaded Poland and it was only the Poles stopping the Russian advance at the great Battle of Warsaw which prevented the Bolsheviks reaching and helping the communist uprisings in Germany. Street violence continued in Germany for years after 1918. A bitter civil war erupted in Ireland when the southern part of the island was given independence from Britain. Hungary became a communist republic under Bela Kun in 1919, which was eventually overthrown by a militaristic regime. A terrible war broke out between Greece, egged on by the Allies to take advantage of Turkey’s defeat, and Turkey which surprised the West by driving the Greek forces into the sea in scenes witnessed by the young reporter Ernest Hemingway.

Occupation

All across Europe occupying forces moved in to administer civil authority and oversee the transfer of power to peaceful regimes. British forces were involved in the occupation of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey. Photos show our boys fraternising with locals, chatting about horses and, in one vivid photo, toboganning in the snows of Austria

Disarmament

Stunning photos showing the vast, vast piles of abandoned rifles, artillery, shells and so on. What a breath-taking, awe-inspiring waste of raw materials and industrial resources, epitomised by the pile of 32,000 rifles awaiting destruction by British forces in Cologne.

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photograpsh at the Imperial war Museum. Photo by the author

Installation view of Renewal: Life after the First World War in Photographs at the Imperial War Museum, showing the huge pile of rifles at Cologne (middle right) and Allied ships anchored at Istanbul (top left). Photo by the author

Thoughts

The three ‘rooms’ have actually been created for this exhibition out of grey cloth stretched across wooden frames. They have windows so you can look into them from the corridor between. And there’s audio, a continual mix of ambient doodling over which we hear voices, crashes, military sounds. I couldn’t decide whether this was irritating or inspiring. But certainly by the end I felt moved, moved to tears by the pointless suffering of so many people, and then horrified, wanting to run away from the scale, the unimaginable size of the catastrophe, the end of the world.

It is to the exhibition curators’ credit that from this vast holocaust they manage to identify clear threads and themes to give the horror shape and meaning, and have selected 130 black and white photographs, documents and objects which really bring home the impact of something so inhumanly vast on individual human beings, whose stories we can approach and understand.

German sword taken at the end of the war in Cologne. Photo by the author

German sword taken at the end of the war in Cologne. Photo by the author


Related links

World War One-related art reviews

World War One-related book reviews

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Man Ray Portraits @ the National Portrait Gallery

To the National Portrait Gallery for Man Ray Portraits. It claims to be the first exhibition of his portraits in the UK, with over 150 specimens. But to be honest, it felt small and pinched. A lot of his most famous images weren’t on display and a lot of what was on display was journeyman stuff from the 40s and 50s. There wasn’t nearly enough of the solarised photos and, by definition, no abstract or experimental or just still life photos. Instead he came over as a superior and sometimes quirky magazine photographer.

The show was in three long, thin rooms divided into small, cramped booths each addressing periods in his career:

New York 1916-20 Born Michael Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia in 1890, Man Ray taught himself photography to reproduce his own works of art. The first work was from 1916, an American just starting his career during the Great War and immediately he is photographing Marcel Duchamp, darling of Dada and the avant-garde, a milieu MR was to inhabit for the rest of his life. Man Ray’s support and promotion of avant-garde artists was formalised in 1920, when American patron Katherine Dreier invited Man Ray and Duchamp to establish the Société Anonyme, America’s first contemporary art collection.

Paris 1921-28 In 1921 MR followed Duchamp to Paris where he held his first solo exhibition of paintings. A succès d’estime it didn’t make any money, persuading MR to focus his efforts on photography. He set upp studios in 1922, the annus mirabilis of literary Modernism. The exhibition is a who’s who of artistic Paris in the golden age of Modernism – Hemingway, Stravinksy, Picasso, Matisse, Schoenberg, Joyce. You spend more time reading the rather exhausting summaries of these superfamous stars than looking at the actual images…

During these years his lover and muse was Kiki (born Alice Prin) who features in the iconic images, Violon d’Ingres and Noire et Blanche.

Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 by Man Ray Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber) © Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924 by Man Ray
Museum Ludwig Cologne, Photography Collections (Collection Gruber)
© Man Ray Trust / ADAGP © Copy Photograph Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln

Paris 1929-37 Central to this period is American-born photographer and fashion model Lee Miller whose striking good looks and crisp figure feature in many of his photos from the time. Together they developed the process of solarisation. There are not nearly enough solarised images in the exhibition. Where is the most famous of all, Les Larmes?

New to me were the striking images of lesbian stunner Suzy Solidor. And I’ve always had a soft spot for the wonderful photo of  Nusch et Sonia Mosse. He came to London to organise an exhibition and took portraits of leading English artists including iconic images of Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. Superior book jacket shots.

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives

Solarised Portrait of Lee Miller, c.1929 by Man Ray The Penrose Collection © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012, courtesy The Penrose Collection. Image courtesy the Lee Miller Archives

Hollywood 1940-50 After the German invasion of France in 1940, Man Ray returned to the United States, travelling to Hollywood where he met Juliet Browner, a 28-year-old dancer and artist’s model. She became his muse and companion for the next thirty-six years. His photographic output drops off as, for the next ten years, MR concentrates on his painting, only taking occasional portraits of friends in the film and arts community.

Paris 1951-76 Like other European artistic exiles who had gone to America during the War years, Man Ray returned to Paris in 1951. He was primarily concerned with making editions of his artwork, writing an autobiography, ‘Man Ray Self-Portrait’ (1963), and contributing to retrospective exhibitions, experimenting a bit with new colour photographic processes, making colour portraits including those of Juliette Greco and Yves Montand.

In August 1976 Man Ray celebrated his eighty-sixth and last birthday – just as the Sex Pistols were starting their explosive career in London. From one pioneer of Dada to ….

 

‘Man Ray Portraits’ continues at the National Portrait Gallery until 27 May

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway (1925)

‎’In Our Time’, Hemingway’s first book, was published in the experimental Paris of the early 1920s. It contains 14 short stories and 18 ‘vignettes’ – or one and 2 paragraph prose poems, moments. The whole thing refers directly or indirectly to the Great War, its killing and brutality and shattering aftermath.

Few books have announced the arrival of a complete style which has gone on to change the way virtually everyone writes. Compared with the floribund Victorians of only a generation earlier, or the Georgian Sassoon and Blunden, trying to preserve their English idyll, Hemingway, aged just 25, has grasped the real nature of the 20th century and invented a new world and a new style to express it. A stunning, amazing achievement. A truly seminal book.

‘In Our Time’ on Amazon

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