Slowness, by Milan Kundera

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)

Volcano, by Shusaku Endo

This 1959 work is a symbolic and elusive short novel from Japan. It is also both provocative and down-to-earth, as it follows the daily routines of its characters. At its center is a volcano called Akadake, and the story is built around four men who are drawn to it. Indeed, this volcano holds the key to understanding the novel. It is a symbol of both death and the evil in mankind.

Endo creates a fictional Professor Koriyama, who establishes the symbolism: “What a mount of heartache it is. A volcano resembles human life. In youth it gives reign to the passions and burns with fire. It spurts out lava. But when it grows old, it assumes the burden of past evil deeds, and it turns as quiet as the grave.”

The four men drawn to this volcano are Jinpei Suda, section head at the Central Weather Bureau, from which he retires on the opening pages; Father Ginzo Sato, a local Catholic pastor who wishes to establish a retreat house on the volcano; City Councilman Aiba, who wishes to enhance the city, and his own wealth, by building a hotel near the retreat house; and Father Durand, an elderly, cynical, apostate French priest who can no longer relate to either his faith or to other human beings.

As the novel progresses, these four men live separate lives that are joined only by the volcano that hovers over their city across the bay. And the question the novel raises is whether or not this apparently dormant volcano will once again explode in fury, as in the past. Or will it remain dormant, like old men, as the distinguished professor says. For if it explodes, it will ruin, of course, the plans of both Father Sato and Councilman Aiba.

The cynical Father Durand believes it will explode, and the retired Jinpei Suda, who loves the volcano and has studied it for years, sees signs of that possibility even as he denies it. And, of course, the issue of whether or not it will explode leads the reader to anticipate that one or more of these older men might also explode.

Nothing much happens in this novel. There is office politics, a retirement party, a family squabble, trips to the volcano, holiday celebrations, dinner conversations, hospital visits, dreams, hallucinations, etc. What matters are the relationships that stem from the characters’ differing views—about the volcano, about civic growth, about one’s worth. About life below the surface of these pages.

One wonders how much of Endo’s own life influenced this and other novels of his. As a Catholic in Japan, part of a tiny minority, he surely had that sense of being an outcast that characterizes some of his characters here. Such as the retired Suda and the apostate Durand, the two key people in this work. Moreover, Endo himself fell ill after World War II when studying in France, and reportedly felt that adhering to his faith in a foreign land, plus anti-Japanese prejudice there, precipitated that illness. As a result, he endured a crisis of faith. And that faith survived. But what if…and we have Father Durand.

Endo is a major Catholic novelist who has been compared to Graham Greene. And so it is perhaps natural that he explores in his work the question of old age and death, as well as the question of evil. Toward the end, Suda recalls Professor Koriyama’s message, saying: “When we have taken on the years, we look back on our past, and even though we come to know the mistakes we made, there is no time left to live again and repair the damage. The tragedy of old age, after all, lies precisely in this, does it not?”

Thus, Suda introduces an awareness of one’s past and the wrongs one has committed, and speculates how one can make amends at the end. And, seeing his life paralleled with that of a volcano that seems to have died down, he decides to build the retreat house. While Councilman Aiba, who has adopted the same belief about the volcano, makes his plans for the hotel.

But we the reader are not that sure about the dormant future of the volcano. Not if there is meaning in the inner turmoil that Suda and Dormand endure. And perhaps also because this Catholic writer, a believer in original sin, accepts that evil does exist in the world, and often explodes within us.

There is also an emptiness to these characters’ lives. And a desperation within. No wonder they feel themselves to be outcasts. For they live alone, within themselves. Their main relationships are administrative and political. They are not friends. They share an interest in the volcano, yes, in its past history or its future role, but that is all they share. As translator Richard Schuchert writes, “Volcano depicts the sad state of human life when it is devoid of deep love. Suda, Ichiro [his son], and Aiba, and the other non-Christians show no trace of compassion. The Christian characters, like Durand and Father Sato go through the motions of Christian charity but without the spirit.”

As a result, there is a certain dryness to a novel when its characters are not infused with love. And have no personal relationship to others. Their common relationship here is with the volcano. And so we experience this novel on the more abstract level of humanity, rather than on the level of human interaction. Yes, there is significant meaning in its theme, but we encounter this early novel on an intellectual level rather than on an emotional level, that of identifying with its characters. We come away with the sense of the often elusive, often frustrating, meaning of life. As well as the meaning of death. And of how much there is a connection between the two.

This is the last of the Endo novels there are for me to read. Perhaps because it is an early novel there is more to the symbolism, the meaning, behind this novel, than there is to the richness of movement and character that I prefer. Its perfection, that is, is more in its message of life and death and evil than it is in the actual life story of its main characters. The prime memory one has of this novel is not of these people but of an inanimate (or is it?) mountain of earth. (January, 2017)