160 pages,
ISBN: 0060928417

Post Your Opinion
The Oppressive Speed of Modernity
by Michael Stickings

Something unexpected happens in section 26, the central section of Slowness. Milan Kundera not only pauses to consider his role as author and narrator; he also suspends the fiction to transmit his intentions to his readers.
The novel opens and closes with a self-referential framing device: Kundera and his wife arrive at a château outside Paris; staying there overnight, he writes this novel as his wife sleeps; they depart.
After The Book of Laughter & Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, one expects such strokes from Kundera. But section 26 is different. Perhaps more than anything in his literary criticism, it is his most self-revelatory moment, in which Kundera the novelist presents himself naked to critics, connoisseurs, adoring fans, and posterity. What happens? His wife wakes from a nightmare to learn that he is writing a novel; she reminds him, "You've often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it. A Big Piece of Nonsense for Your Own Pleasure"; she tells him that people won't understand the humour of it all and advises him to be serious. What a "terrible prophecy"! But how are we to take it? Is Kundera really naked, or is he protected by the foggy shroud of irony? Should we take this book seriously? Is it truly a novel, "the great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence," as Kundera puts it in The Art of the Novel? Or is it just a big joke?
Slowness is the shortest and the least dense of Kundera's novels-more novella, perhaps, than novel, but the size shouldn't fool anyone. As in his earlier novels, Kundera engages an aphoristic style of writing; he is more Calvino than Broch or Musil, immensely readable and consistently fascinating. But the "great themes of existence" are still there; in this case, the terrifying speed of modern life.
At the beginning, Kundera and his wife, driving slowly along the highway, talk of automobile deaths and find themselves in front of a reckless driver who wants only to pass them; later, they walk peacefully through the woods near the château and suddenly find themselves next to a highway. He concludes that "speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man." Then he turns elegiac: "Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear?" And so on, none too subtly, though Kundera's reconstruction of the past is highly selective and reminiscent of the tricks used by Borges to invent fictitious history and art for the sake of fictitious criticism.
The initial message is clear, surprisingly clear, and so is the contrast that elaborates the theme. Eighteenth century: a one-night love affair between Madame de T. and a young chevalier as told in a supposedly old novella by one Vivant Denon; twentieth century: a one-night love affair between a Parisian entomologist, Vincent, and a young woman, Julie. Both are set in that same château.
(As usual, the core narrative elements are surrounded by layers and layers of secondary stories, such as the story of a Czech entomologist, reinstated after the fall of Communism and now reflecting on his place in history, and philosophical digressions, such as tangential remarks on Epicurus, Laclos, and the demise of the European Left, all glued together by Kundera's masterful use of multiple perspective and authorial intervention.)
The eighteenth- and twentieth-century love affairs are parallel, but differ in this: the eighteenth century was the age of slowness, that is, of meaningful human contact, of friendship, of memory, of reflection, of liberating laughter; the twentieth century is the age of speed, that is, of meaningless human contact, of fame, of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness, of oppressive seriousness. This is the age of the video camera, of celebrity worship, of the exhibitionist dancer-Kundera's metaphor for the tyrannical moralist who spurns intimacy and embraces the stage on which he (or she) entertains the distant masses of faceless individuals.
Berck, a Parisian intellectual, and Duberques, a member of the French National Assembly, try to outdo each other's altruism in front of the television cameras; Vincent and Julie emerge naked from the château pool, hear voices, and begin to copulate in front of this imagined audience-but penetration is never achieved, for Vincent's penis fails him; later, he races away from the château on a motorcycle. All are dancers without intimacy, whereas the Chevalier, despite his failure to keep Madame de T. as a lover, rests content with the smell on his fingers and the vivid memories of the night before. Kundera to the Chevalier: "I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope." Kundera on "existential mathematics": "the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting."
Slowness is a sustained meditation on the plight of modern man. One thinks of Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Broch, Mann, Capek, Calvino, Fuentes, Garcia Marquez: Kundera is one of the greatest novelists of what in Testaments Betrayed he calls "the third half" of the European novel. Yet there is also a lightness in his work, a return to the playfulness of "the first half", a return to Rabelais, Cervantes, and Sterne, a repudiation of the heaviness of "the second half", of Balzac and Zola, a heaviness of style and context. There is an unfortunate tendency in Kundera's criticism to favour form over content, style over substance-and Slowness has the requisite form and style of postmodern fiction.
The strength of Slowness lies in its perceptive exploration of the human condition within and across historical contexts. Do the characters matter? Yes. Do the stories matter? Yes. But one finds in these beautifully interwoven threads the characteristics of a universal human condition only partially determined by historical context; the human condition of multiple dichotomies: memory and forgetfulness, past and future, levity and gravity, lightness and darkness. Kundera's characters are not hastily drawn intellectual sketches; they are complex vehicles of love, hate, and indifference, reason and unreason, passion and calculation.
Nevertheless, should we take this seriously? Should we risk interpretation, when Kundera has told us in The Art of the Novel of his "disgust for those who reduce a work to its ideas"? Section 26 is surely just a bit of playful irony placed carefully amid profound reflections on the dark side of our times. Except for Kundera's warm approval of Sade's century, there is nothing lyrical or romantic in or about Slowness, nor are there any self-congratulatory apologies for the state of things at present. Vincent poignantly observes of Berck and his kind: "like miserable flunkies, they delight in the human condition just as it is imposed on them: dancers happy to be dancers. Whereas he, even though he knows there is no way out, proclaims his disagreement with that world." Is this not Kundera registering his disapproval with modern times? But then is there not also something of the dancer in Kundera? He wrote the book, after all; he is one of the darlings of contemporary fiction, one of the world's most popular novelists. But with Slowness it seems that the novel has become for him something of a bully pulpit; less ambiguous than his previous works, the anger almost spills from the pages; and late modernity, the modernity of today, is heartily denounced with little show of obfuscation.
Does this detract from the novel? A little, insofar as even the most entrenched conservative must admit that modern technology has brought about some good, but perhaps it needs to be said that we may be haphazardly and unthinkingly accelerating our way to an oblivion without memory. The problem, though, is that both the late modern technophilia and the postmodern uniformity that Kundera so fears may be products of the early-modern individualism that he so admires. After all, the libertinism of Madame de T. and the Chevalier, is, in its political variant, precisely that spirit of individualism which unleashed, upon Europe and America, and from there around the world, the liberal democratic faith in progress upon which technophilia and the middling conformity of technologized individuals are based. Ah, the happy days of libertine individualism! Ah, the chimerical days of conforming individualism! Kundera captures our age with acute sensibility; he also levels a serious warning. But his elegy for a bygone age, even an age he himself has constructed, seems desperately misled. Individualism is indeed a precious thing; so too is slowness; but, though the twain once met, does not history show that slowness is the sacrifice we must ultimately offer up for individualism? Is not speed the necessary consequence of individualism? What an easy step it is from the boudoir to the gulag!

Michael Stickings is a Toronto writer.


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