Review Of Slowness,
by Milan Kundera
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/7/05
There comes a time when every writer should know when to hang it up, for they have run out of fresh ideas and are merely left aping their former selves, and better works. That time, it seems, came for Milan Kundera with 1995’s Slowness. It is a terrible little novel, or novella, for it is a small-sized book of 156 pages, with large font.
Now, Kundera first made a splash in the English speaking world in the late 1970s and early 1980s with two majestically great books- The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. In his works prior to those two touchstones his work was yet to be fully formed, and since then his work has been a mere shadow of its earlier metafictional glory.
The novel opens with the author and his wife Vera driving from Paris to a country chateau for a night’s getaway. A hell-mell motorcyclist follows them and Vera remarks that people lose their fear when they get behind the wheel. It is an offhand remark, akin to the one that prompted the novel Kundera wrote just before this, Immortality, but it propels the rest of the book. This book, as his others, will be part novel, part memoir, and part philosophic discourse. Its subject will be a lyrical meditation on speed and time, technology and the mortal, memory and forgetting. Quoth the master: ‘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...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.’ From this extended observation Kundera rues the loss of the art of slowness, as well its appreciation.
Of course, being Kundera,
there is another track that the book operates on. Kundera claims to be currently
reading a novella as he relates his own tale. Whether this is a real or made up
work I don’t know, nor do I care, for its veracity is irrelevant to the
success or failure of Kundera’s work. It is called Point de Lendemain,
or No Tomorrow. It was written by an 18th Century debauchee by
the name of Vivant Denon, really a pseudonym used by its author to retain
anonymity. In the novella a young chevalier travels to the same chateau Mr. and
Mrs. Kundera are at, to meet his true love, the married Madame de T,
and perform sexual rituals known to only a select few.
Later in the book, the
rowdy motorcyclist, named Vincent, arrives at the chateau, as well, for an
entomological conference, where he meets attractive Julie- a typist, a Czech
scientist, a Leftist intellectual, and some others, who all end up trying to
orgy, but failing- including an attempted comedic moment where Vincent and Julie
try to have sex in public, by a pool, but Vincent’s penis decides to
soliloquy. This is all contrasted to the more highly staged and choreographed
lovemaking of the 18th Century novella characters.
Through it all Kundera muses about fame- ‘….fame meant something different in his time; I imagine the audience that he cared about, that he hoped to beguile, was not the mass of strangers today's writer covets but the little company of people he might know personally and respect.’- as well as the general, and lamentable fastness of today’s world, and how that affects everyone’s behavior, making us feel we are constantly being watched and critiqued.
Unfortunately, little is made of this- the lives limned are not that affecting, the ideas floated not that deep, and the whole book reeks of being ‘been there, done that’, as well as ‘done that’ better. The book, as small as it is, is very bloated. There are perhaps twenty-five to thirty pages of real material here. Kundera has had some very deep and definite things to say on the state of living- but that, like the novella’s lovers, is something from a bygone age. The rest smacks of an aging author’s desire to just toss out what ever suits his mind, to earn a little spending cash, not a true attempt to delve into a matter, and make it new again. In his best works, and best passages, Kundera would look at the banal with fresh eyes, and impart that wonder to his reader. Now, he seems content to be merely puerile and sexual, obsessed with assholes, as if he is reliving his preteen horniness. He veers far too close to self-parody for my taste. Yet, like many writers past their prime, he simply has lost any and all ability to discern such wanness in his writing, and with that ability any apparent ability to feel any embarrassment over writing, but more importantly, publishing such bad writing. Kundera, in his lifelong quest to smash formulaic novelry, has instead, come full circle to creating his own Kunderan formula. Here it is in a nutshell: 1) posture as your metafictive self as a near-omniscient, especially in matters of sex and or culture while 2) the real fictive characters do incredibly stupid things and 3) comment ad nauseam about the most trivial matters, as if they are laden with the mysteries of life; then 4) name drop about famous artists and philosophers, incorporate them into your tale as a bulwark between you and the fictive losers you create, to also snooker gullible readers into feeling they’ve stumbled upon a thing of depth, then 5) remind the reader that this knowledge was all gleaned from suffering only someone from an Iron Curtain country could understand, and 6) recycle any or all of the above for the next book, merely making sure to slightly alter the names and or percentages of each ‘ingredient’.
Unfortunately, along with being formulaic, Slowness is dull, preachy, pedantic, screedish, smug, and banal- all at once. It is a slim yet bloated discourse on sex, existentialism, anal fetishism, and manners. In his defense, Kundera at least showed some honesty in classifying the book as a mere divertimento- meaning he never intended to say anything of depth in it: on art, nor anything else. That is his right, of course, but couldn’t he have warned his devoted readers, those with a true desire to use art to explore the world? Instead, he showed an utter contempt for his audience, in foisting this piece of crap into the world, and to me, such an act is the final curtain on a once glorious career.
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