Slowness

Milan Kundera (and translator Peter Kussi) won the second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1991 with Immortality so there is every reason to suppose he would have made the long list with his following novel, Slowness, in 1996, this time with a different translator, Linda Asher, this being the first novel he wrote in French. Kundera himself features occasionally in the novel as he travels to and then stays in the chateau which is the setting for its stories, waking his wife as his restless imagination invades her dreams, “as if you’re dreams are a wastebasket where I toss pages that are too stupid.” Aware that he is inventing a new novel, she recalls:

“You’ve often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it.”

It’s difficult to resist the idea that Slowness is that novel, particularly as it descends into farce in the final pages.

Kundera first considers the concept of slowness as he drives to the chateau increasingly aware of the impatience of the driver behind him:

“Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”

In contrast he recounts an 18th century French novella which tells the story of a young Chevalier who spends the night with a married woman only to discover he has been used as a decoy to disguise her true lover. Of the woman, Madame T, Kundera imagines “a gentle indolence emanates from her” and that “their adventure might bloom in all its splendid slowness.” Slowness not only allows us to experience but to remember:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

Later, Kundera will contrast this encounter with a more modern one which seems grotesque in comparison. This second story begins with another idea (Kundera is nothing if not discursive), that of the ‘dancer’. A dancer, according to the character Pontevin, is someone who is performative in their moral actions: “The dancer differs from the politician in that he seeks not power but glory.” Berck, he says, is the “king of dancers”, but he begins with a story of him being out-manoeuvred when another ‘dancer’ kisses a man with AIDS at a dinner. Realising he cannot either copy or outdo him, Berck instead flies to Africa “and got himself photographed alongside a little dying black girl whose face was covered with flies.” As Pontevin says:

“Taking over the stage requires keeping people off it.”

In this Kundera seems to be outlining virtue-signalling (and those that condemn it) well before that phrase came into common use, summing up the attitude of the dancer as follows:

“He is in love with his life the way a sculptor might be in love with the statue he is carving.”

In this way, Pontevin sends his friend (though a clearly inferior friend) Vincent to the chateau and a conference of entomologists where Breck will be making an appearance. It is there Vincent embarks on the grotesque amorous encounter mentioned earlier which ends in simulated sodomy by the hotel pool and includes the author addressing Vincent’s member in an attempt to understand its lack of arousal. (A scene which, as in a farce, will involve all the characters coinciding in the venue, each one ridiculous in their own way).

One of these is a Czech scientist, attending the conference after years of being denied his position in his own country. This, we are told, makes him feel, a “melancholy pride”, even though he was never really in opposition to the government, a fact he has slowly forgotten over time. When he tells this story to the conference he receives a rapturous response, led, of course, by Breck:

“…he feels famous and he wants his walk to his seat to be long and never-ending.”

Kundera has great fun with this character, no doubt recycling many personal incidents, as his name is either pronounced or spelt wrong (or both), central European capitals are mentioned interchangeably, and his country is referred to as being in the ‘east’. He is in the pool to shown off the muscles he has developed through manual labour through a series of handstands, another reason for his pride.

All the characters, in fact, are exposed to the reader’s laughter in one way or another, but at the same time Kundera is usually gentle in his ridicule. We understand the anxieties which lead them to expose themselves (though perhaps less so with the female characters) and therefore we rarely feel Kundera is vicious in the spot-lighting of their weaknesses. This can, however, have a distancing effect and, for some readers, it may seem too much like his characters are merely experiments in an idea, but the laughter – sometimes cringing, sometimes cruel – always feels very human. Slowness is a novel to enjoy, whether it is read languorously or at pace.

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4 Responses to “Slowness”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I went through a Kundera phase in the late ’80s, largely prompted by the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which remains my favourite of his novels). That said, I haven’t read this one. The inclusion of a Czech scientist who has been denied a position in his own country sounds very characteristic of this author’s work. It certainly resonates with my memories of his earlier novels…

    • 1streading Says:

      I went through a similar Kundera phase, though I’ve also read the novel since, not that there have been many of them. I must admit, reading this made me want to return to the earlier ones.

  2. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber) […]

  3. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber) […]

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