Slowness, by Milan Kundera

by Robert A. Parker

This 1995 novel begins as a beautifully written, and translated, work. But it takes a long while to become a novel. We are with the narrator and his wife as they check into a chateau in the French countryside. Then he tells an anecdote about a seduction of two centuries ago taken from on an obscure novel called No Tomorrow. Which leads to ruminations that verge on being personal essays, essays that discuss the differences between the old days and modern life.

The narrator ruminates first about slowness, how it used to leave us time to experience each moment of living, and to remember it. But now all we care about is speed, on the road, at a movie, or with our lover, which leads to forgetting each experience. He also explores the idea of “the player,” those who dominate the public stage in order to attract attention. Finally, he establishes what is to be this work’s theme: seduction. And focuses on the novel No Tomorrow, in which a young 18th century chevalier is seduced by a worldly wife in order to throw her husband off the scent of her true lover.

The “essays” evolve into a narrative that brings sets of characters into competition. Pontevin, an historian, is jealous of an ambitious intellectual, Berck, seeing the latter as a dancer. Then Pontevin’s disciple Vincent, a modern man devoted to speed, is jealous of Pontevin, seeing him as a dancer. There is also an unnamed Czech scientist at a convention of entomologists who are meeting at the chateau where the others are guests—and Berck tries to advance himself by picking on this scientist. Meanwhile, we occasionally return to the narrator and his wife at the chateau. The narrator is a writer, presumably Kundera, who seems to be having writer’s block; and the reader wonders if these characters we are reading about are real or are characters in a novel the narrator is developing.

There is much potential here. The forgetful Czech scientist embarrasses himself, and a pursuing Berck embarrasses him further. But the author foregoes any intellectual seduction. He is more interested in real seduction. Berck rejects a woman who loves him, Immaculata, a television journalist. Vincent discovers a typist Julie who fascinates him and who does accept him for a night. But then complications arise. Berck does not love the woman, but her cameraman does. Except, she rejects him. Vincent tries to make love to Julie, but fails. In public. The implication being that, like Berck, like Pontevin, he is also a dancer, since he wishes to copulate in public. And like them he also fails. Suggesting that the quickie seduction of modern times is not as effective as the slowly executed seduction in No Tomorrow.

And then? In his earlier novels, Kundera relied on variations on a theme rather than on story. My sense here is that he is relying on too few themes in this château he says is filled with ghosts. The novel builds to a climactic scene at a swimming pool, with the failed copulation followed by a false attempt at suicide. It is a climactic scene reminiscent of high drama, but all is coincidental. The scenes have no link. And thus, no drama. And then the novel concludes with a scene in which a character from No Tomorrow and one from today confront one another, one happy about being seduced, one unhappy at his failure to seduce. To little effect, because their meeting is symbolic. It furthers the theme, but is not real. Angeline Goreau perhaps reflects all this when writing in The New York Times, “The speeding up of the farce at the end of this book is inextricably part of the point he is making. But, for all its audacity, I miss here the expansive feel of the earlier novels.”

Kundera would undoubtedly defend himself by saying that he sees fiction differently, that he is writing about ideas, not people. He is simply identifying his ideas with people. And illustrating them with people whose activities parallel each other but do not intersect with each other. And he certainly does this. But while each couple illustrates an example of seduction, the failure to connect among these seductions dilutes the emotional impact.

Also, these casual seductions, so baldly conveyed here, do not reflect my kind of fiction. Moreover, they fail to match the complexity of Kundera’s earlier novels, as if here his imagination has failed him. One critic suggests, however, that the brevity of this novel actually reflects the novel’s theme, that modern life is one of speed and forgetting. And that the length of this novel signals the short attention span of modern readers, who demand the ability to read a book quickly. (But not, I would hope, the urge to forget it.)

For me, however, this explanation goes against the parameters of novel writing. Michiko Kakutani discusses this approach in the Times, calling the work “an extrapolation of ideas and techniques….[it] is less a traditional narrative than a musical improvisation; it’s a series of variations built around a central theme and linked together by leitmotifs.” And later: “The novella is really concerned with the storytelling process itself, with the means by which the facts of real life are turned into fiction.”

With this emphasis on process, on brevity, to illustrate his theme, however, Kundera generates the very showmanship he decries. For when you seek effect, rather then reader involvement, you have become a true dancer. He even has Vincent speeding away on a motorcycle at the end, trying to forget. But has Kundera forgotten that you do not sacrifice real people and real motivation to make your point? Literature requires you to integrate your ideas and your people. In the end, his imagination has focused on his philosophical theme, at the expense of his fictional characters.

Actually, some critics see the value of this novel to be in its philosophical depth, in its being built around the concepts of slowness and remembering in the past world and speed and forgetting in the modern world. But for me, this is not the purpose of literature: to illustrate philosophy. The purpose is to illustrate the emotions, the desires, the frustrations, the thinking of individual characters in a tangible world.

In sum, I was disappointed in this novel, in part because I did not understand what Kundera was trying to do. And I thank the reviewers for explaining that. But I would also note that the reviewers I cite do not believe he pulled off his blend of theme and story. Nor do I. (January, 2017)