By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

In Search of the Self: Immortality by Milan Kundera

Who are we? Are we defined by what we do, by what we know, by what we feel - or by what others think of us? Milan Kundera ponders this question in his novel Immortality.

Every so often, whenever I wake up feeling particularly creative and ambitious, I fancy myself a novelist. I wake up knowing exactly what I want to write about, and am convinced this could be a turning point in my life. Until I actully sit down and wonder how to start, that is. Or, even worse, until I read a novel that’s so brilliant, that I decide not to bother trying. Immortality by Milan Kundera was one such novel. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!

Before reading Immortality, I didn’t often think of my Self.

So, imagine me, sitting there trying to write a novel. I have quite a few ideas I could work out, I might even have a couple of possible opening sentences, but the main problem is figuring out the main theme. I am never quite able to find the right focus, and therefore have never managed to continue beyond these opening lines. The beginning of Immortality, on the other hand, opens up the entire world in just a few sentences.

Kundera’s novel starts with the narrator watching an older woman gesturing lovingly at her young swimming instructor. And that gesture is how it all begins: it’s a gesture he recognises, which makes him consider the fact that there’s billions of people, but only a limited amount of gestures; and therefore, we don’t own gestures, and instead they own us. Furthermore, it reminds him of a woman called Agnes, but he doesn’t know anyone with that name.

What follows in Immortality is the imagined life story of Agnes, her sister, her husband, and what happens to them – but in it we also read about the artist Goethe and the woman who admired him so much, she loved the idea of loving him more than the man himself; in it we also read about a character which was introduced in another one of Kundera’s novels, who interacts with the characters in this novel; in it we also read how Kundera (or the narrator claiming to be Kundera himself) meets the characters he carefully created throughout the novel.

Reading the novel enlightened me, and you now know exactly who I am…

Imagine me again, fingers hovering over the keyboard (or, if I haven’t only woken up feeling creative and ambitious but also pretentious, my fountain pen hovering over my notebook) trying to thing of the perfect opening sentence, and considering all those themes presented in Immortality: love, sex, life, death, art, imagination, philosophy, identity, immortality – even the idea of the Novel itself (“dramatic tension is the real curse of the novel”, meaning that all novels are bound by their being a novel, needing a start, a middle, and an ending) – and all of a sudden it hits me all that I could never write anything as layered and profound as this. I realise that the inspirational fire that was burning inside of me while reading Kundera’s novel has burned my confidence to the ground. My fingers tremble, and I stop writing.

I then try to think of why I want to be a novelist, and why I tell myself I could be one. One of the most important themes in Immortality is the idea of the self, and I have come to realise that it’s not that I necessarily want to be a novelist, but that I want to be perceived as one. Imagine that: Elke, the great writer! Would I be a different person if that was how people saw me? According to the narrator in Immortality, people didn’t really care about Goethe’s plays, but more about being able to say they watched a play by Goethe – or having met the playwright. Similarly, he claims that people would eventually stop reading books by Hemingway, but still celebrate him as the macho, misogynist man they imagined him to be. So do we read novels because we want to escape real life, or get an insight into their authors?

… Or do you?

So, imagine me one last time, trying to write a novel. Can you actually see me doing it? Or are you replacing me with yourself, because you have also dreamed of becoming a writer? Or has this image turned into a metaphor for everyone who is trying to fulfil their dreams (but failing miserably)? Do you even believe me when I’m saying I want to be a novelist? Or did I make it all up so I could write a blog post about it? Whatever idea has formed in your mind, please stop including me in it. I’m putting down my pen, laying my dream of becoming a novelist to rest, and will devote myself to reading books like this one. And every morning I wake up, I will remind myself I will not be a novelist, but instead a novel reader.

Have you ever read anything else by Milan Kundera? Do you enjoy reading philosophical novels? Why, do you think, do we want to be something? Do you think there is such a thing as the Self? Can we be someone without someone else telling us who we are? Do you think, like Shakespeare also wrote four hundred years ago, that only art is immortal? Also, did you manage to make any sense of this post? (If not, I urge you to read Immortality!) Please, let me know in the comments!

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