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Slowness

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Overview

Milan Kundera's lightest novel, a divertimento, an opera buffa, Slowness is also the first of this author's fictional works to have been written in French.

Disconcerted and enchanted, the reader follows the narrator of Slowness through a midsummer's night in which two tales of seduction, separated by more than two hundred years, interweave and oscillate between the sublime and the comic. Underlying this libertine fantasy is a profound meditation on contemporary life: about the ...

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Overview

Milan Kundera's lightest novel, a divertimento, an opera buffa, Slowness is also the first of this author's fictional works to have been written in French.

Disconcerted and enchanted, the reader follows the narrator of Slowness through a midsummer's night in which two tales of seduction, separated by more than two hundred years, interweave and oscillate between the sublime and the comic. Underlying this libertine fantasy is a profound meditation on contemporary life: about the secret bond between slowness and memory, about the connection between our era's desire to forget and the way we have given ourselves over to the demon of speed. And about "dancers" possessed by the passion to be seen, for whom life is merely a perpetual show emptied of every intimacy and every joy.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
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.
Dwight Garner

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

LA Times
A playful envoi from a tender misanthrope; a rant set to music by Mozart
Kirkus Reviews
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 feeling—specifically 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 impulses—unhappy 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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060928414
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 479,449
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.39 (d)

Meet the Author

The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.

Biography

For someone whom the world regards as a serious intellectual, Milan Kundera has a brilliantly twisted sense of humor. His novels depict a world of awkward orgies and disastrous pool parties, mad scientists and self-pitying poets who contract pneumonia out of spite. While Kundera's works tackle profound issues of human identity, they also playfully juggle ambiguities, ironies and paradoxes. "The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question," he said in a 1980 interview with Philip Roth. "There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead."

Kundera was born in Brno, Czechoslovkia in 1929. Like many young Czechs who had come of age during World War II and the German occupation, Kundera was attracted to Marxist philosophy, which seemed to promise a new freedom and peace. The first literary works he produced (three volumes of poetry and a play, The Owners of the Keys) were essentially Communist propaganda, though they didn't always conform to the tenets of socialist realism approved by the state. His resistance to the official restrictions on literature helped lead to his involvement with the "Prague Spring," the brief-lived reform movement toward "socialism with a human face."

During the '60s, Kundera began writing short stories, collected as Laughable Loves, which he would later identify as the beginning of his mature work. In several of them, jokes that start out as innocent pranks evolve into catastrophes for both perpetrator and victim -- they are deeds that, like the Czech version of Communism, have escaped the control of their creators. Kundera's first novel, The Joke, concerns a young man who is brought up on political charges after sending a teasing postcard to his girlfriend ("Optimism is the opium of the people!").

The Joke was published to wide acclaim shortly before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following the invasion, Kundera was ousted from his film-studies teaching job, his books were pulled from libraries and bookstores, and he was forbidden to publish new work. He went on writing, however, and his novels Life Is Elsewhere and The Farewell Party were published outside his native country. Farcical and bleak, the novels developed what would become a recurring theme for Kundera, in which commitment to an abstract moral principle paves the way for corruption and evil.

In 1975, Kundera fled Czechoslovakia and settled in France, where he eventually became a citizen. His first book produced in exile, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, remains one of his most celebrated works, weaving together autobiographical reflections with a series of connected fictions. John Updike, writing in the New York Times, called it "brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out." His next novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, also drew high praise, and the 1988 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche turned Kundera into something of a celebrity.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the political pressures that shaped his early life and works, Kundera has long insisted that the novel should be a work of art, not a political or ideological statement. By the '90s, Kundera had started to write his novels in French; he is now sometimes tagged a "Franco-Czech" author. His works are often described as "novels of ideas," but he resists the term "philosophical novel." As he said in an interview with Lois Oppenheim, "There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize."

Good To Know

Kundera joined the Communist party while still in his teens, but was expelled in 1950 (an experience that helped inspire his 1967 novel The Joke). He was readmitted to the party in 1956, then expelled again in 1970.

Kundera's father played the piano, and Kundera himself studied music composition. He has often described his novels in musical terms as "polyphony," in which different voices are juxtaposed to build up a unified whole. As he told Philip Roth, the "various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement each other."

According to Kundera, there are four great European novelists: Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz. He has called the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal "our very best writer today."

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    1. Hometown:
      Paris, France
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 1, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brno, Czechoslovakia
    1. Education:
      Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 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.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2001

    Give yourself a treat

    If you read for the pleasure of words, because literature tells you something about the world that moving through life very fast doesn't, you'll love this novel. I enjoyed it so much in translation that I bought the French original, to read the two side by side, very slowly. I enjoyed it even more this way. Linda Asher is one of the most talented living translators.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2001

    Excellent Concepts

    The idea of relating speed to memory was truly intruiging, because it is so true of todays times. There is also the concept of forming identities, through stolen identities-Vincent and Pontevin-and through self-identities, what we see our self as, and what we want the world to see as well-The Czech scientist. There are a few sensuous plot lines, but if you ignore those the book is great.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2000

    very much superior to nearly all novels published lately

    This is the third of Milan Kundera's farces--succeeding 'The Joke', and 'The Farewell Party'--, and as a farce, and unlike its two predecessors, it doesn't quite come off; its climactic scene is too contrived. But like its two predecessors it has much more to offer than farce. It is short and light (in deliberate contradistinction to 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting', 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', and 'Immortality'), almost a short story. I think if one encountered it within a collection of short fiction, one would be more likely to properly appreciate it. I don't recommend you make this your first Milan Kundera book, however. Start with 'The Joke'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2009

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    Posted February 27, 2009

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