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.
About the Author
Milan Kundera 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.
Date of Birth:April 1, 1929
Place of Birth:Brno, Czechoslovakia
Education:Undergraduate degree in philosophy, Charles University, Prague, 1952
Read an Excerpt
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.
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.
What People are Saying About This
"Irresistible. . . .Slowness is an ode to sensuous leisure, to the enjoyment of pleasure rather than just the search for it."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The gist of the Slowness story can be told in maybe a couple chapters. Most of the content has nothing to do directly with the main plot, but outrageous digression and meditation on the philosophy of pleasure. It's a meditation of pleasure, or rather, the endangerment of pleasure of slowness. The entire book circuits around the question Milan Kundera addresses toward the very beginning: what happens to the pleasure of slowness? Immediately one can conceive the substantial emphasis, connotation, implications, and gestures on sexual (carnal, bodily, physical) pleasure.Two stories run parallel over a vast interval of time at an identical location, some chateau in Prague. In late 18th century, Madame de T. summoned a young nobleman to her chateau as a screen of her secret lover Marquis from her husband. Madame de T. seduced the young man and lasciviously obliged him an evening of ecstatic explosion. In the same chateau 200 years later, a man named Vincent, at an entomology conference, lost the beautiful Julie after some eye-bulging sex by the pool at the chateau and whereupon suffered the ridicule of his peers.Reading this book is so much like witnessing some farce into which one renders helpless to stick his oars. A man Berck, an avid practitioner of "dancer politics" (seeking glory but not power, always centering on stage and keeping others off-stage), made a fool of himself pretending to kiss some AIDS patient to paint the image of a well-wisher. Berck then went off to Somalia and greeted the famished children not through a surge of vanity but because he felt obliged to make up for a botched dance step. Then entered some Czech entomologist who, by merely aloud what he thought, was deprived of the very meaning of his life. He was to give a speech of his research at the conference. But instead he found Vincent and Julie making out by the pool. Another woman Immaculata decided to jilt her cameraman lover, walked out the hotel room where they had had sex (to be more precisely, a sequence of parading anger, forcing submission, the actual sex, falling over, throwing stuffs around, pulling a tantrum, feigning fear, sex again and so on...), stormed through the pool and realized with utter clarity the snare closing around her: her pursuer behind and the water ahead. She jumped into the pool like an awkward diver pricked with cramping limbs.I kept asking myself the same question during the one-sitting read: what's the point of all these people and sex talk? Surely Kundera had achieved what he had anticipated-to slow down the story of the two couples and stuff in outrageous digression and meditation of sexual politics. But I think he had gone too far in trying to establishment some connection with Kissinger and this journalist woman who had a morbid crush on him and wrote about her crush in a book.If this book tries to convey a point or some life lesson, it's hedonism. Pleasure cannot be experienced to the full unless it slowly works the way up to climax. It aims (maybe a little too high) at the secret bond between slowness and memory, about how speed infringes slowness and happiness. To me it's a book that somehow loses its bearing. Pass it if you have better books to read.
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.
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.
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'.