Milan Kundera's slim new novel, Slowness, is his first work of fiction written originally in French, and it's a surprise -- a fey, funny, somewhat frazzled novel that lacks the depth of his earlier work but may be his most purely entertaining to date. The narrator of Slowness simultaneously relates two quirky love stories -- one is set in the 18th century, one in the 20th -- that take place in the same chateau where he and his wife happen to be staying. Kundera, as always, supplies some fine writing about romance's dark heart ("For a man there is no balm more soothing," the rueful narrator observes, "than the sadness he has caused a woman.")
But this book's truest pleasures lie not in these complicated and underdeveloped tales. Far more enthralling are the narrator's tart and lovely observations about other aspects of life, notably the way society has become too fast and frantic (hence the book's title). "There is a secret bond," Kundera writes, "between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting." Kundera also finds time to discourse amiably on fame and hedonism, and he amusingly skewers the posturing of France's public intellectuals, men he calls "dancers," who rush to perform their kind of "moral judo" in front of television cameras.
Slowness isn't major Kundera. But readers will feel a familiar emotional tug when the narrator begins to talk about the importance of reclaiming moral seriousness -- albeit a Kunderian seriousness that's always balanced by "clear and reliable" pleasures: "a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky. . . a caress." -- Salon
Paradoxically, Slowness...is the fastest paced of Kundera's novels as well as the most accessible.
New York Times Book Review
Audacity, wit, and sheer brilliance.
A playful envoi from a tender misanthrope; a rant set to music by Mozart
Elegantly fashioned and almost forbiddingly urbane new novel, written in French, by the renowned Czech author of such ironical and sophisticated fictions as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984).
Kundera is nothing if not a theoretical writer, and he is here concerned with the contrast between older and newer ways of thinking and feelingspecifically with the now devalued ideal of hedonism in a culture whose embrace of "speed" as the measure of all things denies us the possibility of having experiences at leisure and recollecting them in tranquility (or, as his unnamed narrator complains, "Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?"). The idea is explored in two contrasting stories, each of which is embellished by discursive commentary. One, set in 18th-century France, and bearing acknowledged resemblances to Pierre Cholderos de Laclos's classic Les Liaisons dangereuses, recounts the amorous education given a delighted young nobleman by his relaxed, worldly-wise mistress. The other, set in the same locale (then a "country chateau," now a hotel), describes the comical interactions of a group of intellectuals gathered for an entomological conference and variously involved with one another. Memorable participants include a would-be libertine whose bad habit of thinking prevents him from having sex, a woman filmmaker whose romantic unhappiness locks her into two mutually abusive relationships, and a Czech scientist whose pride in his dissident political status takes the curious ancillary form of a very nearly neurotic worship of the body. They're all riddled with a self- defeating tendency to second-guess their own spontaneous impulsesunhappy avatars of this bleakly monitory novel's declaration that "When things happen too fast nobody can be certain about anything . . . not even about himself."
Dependably inventive and amusing, especially in its delicious sensitivity to the convolutions of contemporary self-consciousness, the novel is nevertheless overly argumentative and ever so slightly preening, brief as it is. Not vintage Kundera.
Read an ExcerptChapter One
We suddenly had the urge to spend the evening and night in a chateau. Many of them in France have become hotels: a square of greenery lost in a stretch of ugliness without greenery; a little plot of walks, trees, birds in the midst of a vast network of highways. I am driving, and in the rearview mirror I notice a car behind me. The small left light is blinking, and the whole car emits waves of impatience. The driver is watching for the chance to pass me; he is watching for the moment the way a hawk watches for a sparrow.
Vera, my wife, says to me: "Every fifty minutes somebody dies on the road in France. Look at them, all these madmen tearing along around us. These are the same people who manage to be so terrifically cautious when an old lady is getting robbed in front of them on the street. How come they have no fear when they're behind the wheel?"
What could I say? Maybe this: the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.
Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man. As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of histime of life. This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, nonmaterial, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.
A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the flames of ecstasy. I recall an American woman from thirty years ago, with her stern, committed style, a kind of apparatchik of eroticism, who gave me a lecture (chillingly theoretical) on sexual liberation; the word that came up most often in her talk was "orgasm"; I counted: forty-three times. The religion of orgasm: utilitarianism projected into sex life; efficiency versus indolence; coition reduced to an obstacle to be got past as quickly as possible in order to reach an ecstatic explosion, the only true goal of lovemaking and of the universe.
Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: "They are gazing at God's windows." A person gazing at God's windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.
I check the rearview mirror: still the same car unable to pass me because of the oncoming traffic. Beside the driver sits a woman; why doesn't the man tell her something funny? why doesn't he put his hand on her knee? Instead, he's cursing the driver ahead of him for not going fast enough, and it doesn't occur to the woman, either, to touch the driver with her hand; mentally she's at the wheel with him, and she's cursing me too.
And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country chƒteau, which took place more than two hundred years ago, the journey of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier who went with her. It is the first time they are so close to each other, and the inexpressible atmosphere of sensuality around them springs from the very slowness of the rhythm: rocked by the motion of the carriage, the two bodies touch, first inadvertently, then advertently, and the story begins.Chapter Two
This is what Vivant Denon's novella tells: a gentleman of twenty goes to the theater one evening. (Neither his name nor his title is mentioned, but I imagine him a chevalier.) In the next box he sees a lady (the novella gives only her initial: Madame de T.); she is a friend of the Comtesse whose lover is the Chevalier. She requests that he see her home after the performance. Surprised by this unequivocal move, and the more disconcerted because he knows Madame de T.'s favorite, a certain Marquis (we never learn his name; we have entered the world of secrecy, where there are no names), the mystified Chevalier finds himself in the carriage beside the lovely lady. After a smooth and pleasant journey, the coach draws to a stop in the countryside, at the chƒteau's front steps, where Madame de T.'s husband greets them sullenly. The three of them dine in a grim, taciturn atmosphere, then the husband excuses himself and leaves the two alone.
Then begins their night: a night shaped like a triptych, a night as an excursion in three stages: first, they walk in the park; next, they make love in a pavilion; last, they continue the lovemaking in a secret chamber of the chƒteau.
At daybreak they separate. Unable to find his room in the maze of corridors, the Chevalier returns to the park, where, to his astonishment, he encounters the Marquis, the very man he knows to be Madame de T.'s lover. The Marquis, who has just arrived at the chƒteau, greets him cheerfully and tells him the reason for the mysterious invitation: Madame de T. needed a screen so that he, the Marquis, would remain unsuspected by the husband. Delighted that the ruse has worked, he taunts the Chevalier who was made to carry out the highly ridiculous mission of fake lover. Exhausted from the night of love, the young man leaves for Paris in the small chaise provided by the grateful Marquis.
Entitled Point de lendemain (No Tomorrow), the novella was published for the first time in 1777; the author's name was supplanted (since we are in the world of secrecy) by six enigmatic letters, M.D.G.O.D.R., which, if so inclined, one might read as: "M. Denon, Gentilhomme Ordinaire du Roi" (Monsieur Denon, Gentleman-in-waiting to the King). Then, in a very small printing and completely anonymous, it was published again in 1779, and it reappeared the following year under the name of another writer. Further editions appeared in 1802 and in 1812, still without the true author's name; after a half century of neglect, it appeared again in 1866. Since then it was credited to Vivant Denon, and over this century, its reputation has grown steadily. Today it figures among the literary works that seem best to represent the art and the spirit of the eighteenth century. Slowness. Copyright © by Milan Kundera. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.