Immortality, page 1
by Milan Kundera
Original Czech title: Nesmrtelnost. A hardcover edition of this book was
published in 1991 by Grove Weidenfeld, a division of Grove Press, Inc. It is
here reprinted by arrangement with Grove Weidenfeld.
immortality. Copyright © 1990 by Milan Kundera. English translation
copyright © 1991 by Grove Press, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in the
United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced
in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of
brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information
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First Harper Perennial edition published 1992.
First Perennial Classics edition published 1999.
Perennial Classics are published by HarperPerennial, a division of
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Immortality / Milan Kundera. — 1st HarperPerennial ed.
Translation of: Nesmrtelnost. ISBN 0-06-097448-6 (paper)
[PG5039.21.U6N3413 1992] 891.8*635—dc20 91-58465
ISBN 0-06-093238-4 (Perennial Classics)
part one The face
PART TWO Immortality
part three Fighting
The sisters • Dark glasses • The body
Addition and subtraction • Older woman, younger man
The Eleventh Commandment • Imagology
The brilliant ally of his own gravediggers
A complete ass • The cat
The gesture of protest against a violation of human rights To be absolutely modern • To be a victim of one's fame
Fighting • Professor Avenarius • The body
The gesture of longing for immortality • Ambiguity
The clairvoyant • Suicide • Dark glasses
part four Homo sentimentalis
part five Chance
part six The dial
PART SEVEN The celebration
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 to swim. He was giving her orders: she was to hold on 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 touch-ingly 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.
-L'm in bed, happily dozing. With die first stirrings of wakefulness, around six in the morning, I reach for the small transistor radio next to my pillow and press die button. An early-morning news program comes on, but I am hardly able to make out the individual words, and once again I fall asleep, so that the announcer's sentences merge into my dreams. It is the most beautiful part of sleep, the most delightful moment of the day: thanks to the radio I can savor drowsing and waking, that marvelous swinging between wakefulness and sleep which in itself is enough to keep us from regretting our birth. Am I dreaming or am I really at the opera hearing two tenors in knightly costume singing about the weather? Why are diey not singing about love? Then I realize that they are announcers; they stop singing and interrupt each other playfully: "It's going to be a hot, muggy day, widi possible thunderstorms," says the first, and the second chimes in, flirtatiously, "Really?" And the first voice answers, equally flirtatiously, "Mais out. Pardon me, Bernard. But that's the way it is. We'll just have to put up with it." Bernard laughs loudly and says, "We're being punished for our sins." And the first voice: "Bernard, why should I have to suffer for your sins?" At that point Bernard laughs even harder, in order to make it clear to all listeners just what kind of sin is involved, and I understand him: this is the one deep yearning of our lives: to let everybody consider us great sinners! Let our vices be compared to thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes! When Frenchmen open their umbrellas later in the day, let them remember Bernard's ambiguous laugh with envy. I tune in to another station because I feel sleep coming on again and I want to invite into my dream some more interesting visions. On the neighboring station a female voice announces that it is going to be a hot, muggy day, with possible thunderstorms, and I'm glad that we have so many radio stations in France and that at precisely the same time they all say the same thing about the same things. A harmonious combination of uniformity and freedom—what more could mankind ask? And so I turn the dial back to where a moment ago Bernard was boasting about his sins, but instead of him I hear another voice singing about some new Renault, so I turn the dial and hear a choir of women's voices celebrating a sale of furs; I turn back to Bernard's station, catch the last two measures of a hymn to the Renault followed immediately by the voice of Bernard himself. In a singsong that imitates the fading melody, he announces the publication of a new biography of Ernest Hemingway, the one hundred and twenty-seventh, yet this time a truly significant one because it discloses that throughout his entire life Hemingway never spoke one single word of truth. He exaggerated the number of wounds he had suffered in the First World War, and he pretended to be a great seducer even though it was proved that in August 1944 and then again from July 1959 onward he had been completely impotent. "Oh really?" laughs the other voice, and Bernard answers flirtatiously, "Mais aui..." and once again all of us find ourselves on the operatic stage, along with the impotent Hemingway, and th
When I wake up, at almost eight-thirty, I try to picture Agnes. She is lying, like me, in a wide bed. The right side of the bed is empty. Who could her husband be? Clearly, somebody who leaves the house early on Saturday mornings. That's why she is alone, sweetly swinging between waking and sleeping.
Then she gets up. Facing her is a TV set, standing on one long, storklike leg. She throws her nightgown over the tube, like a white,
tasseled theater curtain. She stands close to the bed, and for the first time I see her naked: Agnes, the heroine of my novel. I can't take my eyes off this beautiful woman, and as if sensing my gaze she hurries off to the adjoining room to get dressed.
Who is Agnes?
Just as Eve came from Adam's rib, just as Venus was born out of the waves, Agnes sprang from the gesture of that sixty-year-old woman at the pool who waved at the lifeguard and whose features are already fading from my memory. At the time, that gesture aroused in me immense, inexplicable nostalgia, and this nostalgia gave birth to the woman I call Agnes.
But isn't a person, and, to an even greater extent, a character in a novel, by definition a unique, inimitable being? How then is it possible that a gesture I saw performed by one person, a gesture that was connected to her, that characterized her, and was part of her individual charm, could at the same time be the essence of another person and my dreams of her? That's worth some thought:
If our planet has seen some eighty billion people, it is difficult to suppose that every individual has had his or her own repertory of gestures. Arithmetically, it is simply impossible. Without the slightest doubt, there are far fewer gestures in the world than there are individuals. That finding leads us to a shocking conclusion: a gesture is more individual than an individual. We could put it in the form of an aphorism: many people, few gestures.
I said at the beginning, when I talked about the woman at the pool, that "the essence of her charm, independent of time, revealed itself for a second in that gesture and dazzled me." Yes, that's how I perceived it at the time, but I was wrong. The gesture revealed nothing of that woman's essence, one could rather say that the woman revealed to me the charm of a gesture. A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person's instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.
Agnes, now fully dressed, went into the hall. There she stopped and listened. Vague sounds from the adjoining room made her realize that her daughter had just gotten up. As if to avoid meeting her, Agnes hurried out into the corridor. In the elevator she pressed the button for the lobby. Instead of going down, the elevator began to twitch like a person afflicted with Saint Vitus' dance. This was not the first time the elevator had startled her with its moods. On one occasion it began to go up when she wanted to go down, another time it refused to open and kept her prisoner for half an hour. She had the feeling that it wanted to reach some sort of understanding with her, to tell her something in its rough, mute, animal way. She complained several times to the concierge, but because the elevator behaved quite normally and decently toward the other tenants, the concierge considered Agnes's quarrel with it her own private matter and paid no attention. This time Agnes had no other choice but to get out and take the stairs. The moment the stairway door closed behind her, the elevator regained its composure and followed her down.
Saturday was always the most tiring day for Agnes. Paul, her husband, generally left before seven and had lunch out with one of his friends, while she used her free day to take care of a thousand chores more annoying than the duties of her job: she had to go to the post office and fret for half an hour in line, go shopping in the supermarket, where she quarreled with an employee and wasted time waiting at the cash register, telephone the plumber and plead with him to be precisely on time so that she wouldn't have to wait the whole day for him. She tried to find a moment to squeeze in a bit of rest at the sauna, something she could not do during the week; in the late afternoon she would always find herself with a vacuum cleaner and duster, because the cleaning woman who came on Fridays was becoming more and more careless.
But this Saturday differed from other Saturdays: it was exactly five years since her father had died. A particular scene appeared before her eyes: her father is sitting hunched over a pile of torn photographs, and Agnes's sister is shouting at him, "Why have you torn up Mother's pictures?" Agnes takes her father's part and the sisters quarrel, overtaken by a sudden hatred.
She got into her car, which was parked in front of the house.
The elevator took her to the top floor of the high-rise that housed the health club with its big swimming pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, Turkish bath, and view of Paris. Rock music boomed from speakers in the locker room. Ten years ago, when she first started coming, the club had fewer members and it was quiet. Then, year by year, the club improved: more and more glass, more lights, more artificial flowers and cactuses, more speakers, more music, and also more and more people, further multiplied by the enormous mirrors that the management one day decided to spread across the walls of the gym.
She opened a locker and began to undress. Two women were chatting close by. One of them was complaining in a quiet, slow alto voice that her husband was in the habit of leaving everything lying on the floor: books, socks, newspapers, even matches and pipes. The other, in a soprano, spoke twice as fast; the French habit of raising the last syllable of a sentence an octave higher made the flow of her speech sound like the indignant cackling of a hen: "I'm shocked to hear you say that! I'm disappointed in you! I'm really shocked! You've got to put your foot down! Don't let him get away with it! It's your house, after all! You've got to put your foot down! Don't let him walk all over you!" The other woman, as if torn between a friend whose authority she respected and a husband whom she loved, explained with melancholy, "What can I do? That's how he is! And he's always been like that. Ever since I've known him, leaving things all over the place!" "So then he's got to stop doing it! It's your house! You can't let him get away with it! You've got to make that crystal clear!" said the soprano voice.
Agnes never took part in such conversations; she never spoke badly of Paul, even though she sensed that this alienated her somewhat from other women. She turned her head in the direction of the alto: she was a young woman with light hair and the face of an angel.
"No, no! You know perfectly well you're in the right! You can't let him act like that!" continued the other woman, and Agnes noticed that as she spoke she kept rapidly shaking her head from left to right and right to left, at the same time lifting her shoulders and eyebrows, as if expressing indignant astonishment that someone had refused to respect her friend's human rights. Agnes knew that gesture: her daughter, Brigitte, shook her head and lifted her brows in precisely the same way.
Agnes undressed, closed the locker, and walked through the swinging doors into a tiled hall, with showers on one side and a glass-enclosed sauna on the other. There, women sat squeezed together on long wooden benches. Some were wrapped in special plastic sheets that formed an airtight cover around their bodies (or certain parts of the body, most often the belly and behind), so that the skin perspired all the more readily and the women would lose weight more quickly, or so they believed.
Another woman nodded in agreement: "Oh yes! And how modest!"
The newcomer said, "Modest? Didn't you realize how extremely proud that man was? But I like that kind of pride! I adore proud people!" She turned to Agnes: "Did you find him modest?"
Agnes said that she hadn't seen the program. As if interpreting this remark as veiled disagreement, the newcomer repeated very loudly, looking Agnes straight in the eye: "I detest modesty! Modesty is hypocrisy!"
Agnes shrugged, and the newcomer said, "In a sauna I've got to feel real heat. I've got to work up a good sweat. But then I must have a cold shower. A cold shower! I adore that! Actually I like my showers cold even in the morning. I find hot showers disgusting."
Soon she declared that the sauna was suffocating; after repeating once more how she hated modesty, she got up and left.
As a little girl, Agnes used to go for walks with her father, and once she asked him whether he believed in God. Father answered, "I believe in the Creator's computer." This answer was so peculiar that the child remembered it. The word "computer" was peculiar, and so was the word "Creator," for Father would never say "God" but always "Creator," as if he wanted to limit God's significance to his engineering activity. The Creator's computer: but how could a person communicate with a computer? So she asked Father whether he ever prayed. He said, "That would be like praying to Edison when a light bulb burns out."
Other author's books:
- Dr. Havel After Twenty YearsSymposiumNobody Will LaughIgnoranceImmortalityLife Is ElsewhereLaughable LovesJacques and His Master: An Homage to Diderot in Three Acts
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