Book review

Milan Kundera’s Slowness (1995) Is A Lucid Distillation of Philosophy and Subtle Psychological Observation

*Slowness* juxtaposes stories and characters, deftly interwoven, in a structure light and airy, never feeling crammed. It is informed by, and engages with, a deep philosophical and literary heritage. The thesis of Slowness is that we moderners have lost the gift for slow living, and thus for remembering. We live fast, therefore we forget – or is it the other way around?

[Image credit]

Slowness (1995) is the second Kundera novel I’ve read, after Unbearable Lightness. At 132 pages, Slowness is a tiny novel. It juxtaposes stories and characters, deftly interwoven, in a structure light and airy, never feeling crammed. It is informed by, and engages with, a deep philosophical and literary heritage. The thesis of Slowness is that we moderners have lost the gift for slow living, and thus for remembering. We live fast, therefore we forget – or is it the other way around?

But Slowness is not an exercise in nostalgia. Kundera lucidly summarises, then dialectically engages with: (i) ideas from Epicurus (341-270BCE, Greece) on the interplay between pleasure and privacy; (ii) Laclos’s epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons (1782, France); and (iii) Vivant Denon’s anonymously published novella No Tomorrow (1777, France). Several chapters in Slowness are given over to the characters from these other stories. Kundera narrates these 18th-century love/sex stories alongside his 20th-century ones – not to ‘contrast’ them, but rather to show that they occur in the same human theatre. The physical setting, too, is the same. A chateau: formerly an aristocratic residence hosting illicit love-affairs in a variety of titillating settings; now a hotel. Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, Slowness demonstrates that, even in intimate dyadic relationships, it is not desire that motivates our actions – but gesture and performance, aimed at third parties.

Slowness’s 18th-century lovers live in a web of action anticipating narrative: they do things with in order to be seen doing them, or to tell people about them. Slowness’s 20th-century lovers act on an even larger stage: in the age of television, it is a global audience – whether real or imagined – that is witness to every “intimate” word and action. Some of the 20th-century characters – Pontevin, Berck – are what the novel calls dancers: openly chasing the limelight, staging every display of sentiment as a dance-move, while simultaneously longing for privacy.

This obsession with the public eye, this inability to act privately – coexists in conflict with desire. The Chevalier from Denon’s novella, and occasionally Vincent in the present-day narrative, both long to surrender to pure interpersonal desire: to this moment with this person. But they are continually sabotaged by their own/by their companions’ inability to escape gesture and performance.

Slowness is structured as bite-sized chapters: each dense yet lucid; each inviting the reader to pause, go live their lives with the novel in the back of their minds, and come back. Though eminently accessible, Kundera’s writing resists binge-reading. This is not because the writing has ‘gaps’ – on the contrary, Kundera tells the reader precisely and immediately what is happening in each character’s mind, and how his philosophical discursions illuminate his characters’ conflicts. Rather, it is because the writing infiltrates the reader’s mind: inviting him to reconsider his own real-life dilemmas and philosophical musings. In achieving this binge-resistant dense lucidity, Kundera achieves what I consider the acme of the storyteller’s art. His ideas assimilate themselves slowly and surely into the infrastructure of the reader’s mind.

Via its frame narrative – the narrator and his wife spend the night at the chateau where all these events, two centuries apart, occurred and are occurring – Slowness repeatedly breaks the fourth wall: the writer-narrator’s ongoing inventions disturb his wife’s sleep. The last-act time-travel episode, again, exists purely to remind the reader that all this is fiction. Kundera’s genius is such that none of these fourth-wall breachings weaken the reality of his characters. Is this just Kundera flaunting his ability to break all the rules and still tell a good story? Perhaps. Either way, the story remains riveting.

The two pairs of lovers, two centuries apart, nestle each in a complex web of characters. In the 18th century, the Chevalier gets his night with his lover only because she knows that he is her friend’s lover, and because she herself needs a scapegoat to offer to her husband, to conceal from her husband her true lover. In the 20th century, Vincent and Julie meet via a web of other characters, each of them performing in various ways and for various audiences. Berck performs in front of actual television-cameras: he is determined that nobody will outdo him in a bleeding-heart contest. Berck is a ridiculous figure: he wants to express solidarity with an oppressed group in Asia, but flies to the wrong country; he wants to commiserate with an exiled Czech intellectual, but makes gaffe after glaring gaffe. There is the Czech intellectual, who is repeatedly transported with self-pity: and finally derives a bizarre but touching consolation from reflecting that he is the most physically fit scientist at this conference.

Thanks to his/her obsession with the public eye – with being seen to do something, rather than with actually doing it – every figure in the novel, in both centuries, becomes a figure touchingly ridiculous. It is Vincent who embodies the tragicomedy of living in the public eye. He meets and seduces Julie: but, carried away by the impulse of performance, his desire remains unfulfilled, and he loses her forever. The novel’s most scathing analysis of the rift between desire and performance occurs in the chapters on Vincent and Julie’s staged pseudo-copulation, followed by Vincent’s private regret that he forfeited the opportunity for real intimacy. During the performance itself, neither Vincent nor Julie feels any sexual arousal. Afterwards, swamped with regret, Vincent feels intense libido – which he is able to quell effectively by imagining himself narrating a fictitious orgiastic performance to his male friends back home. The conflict is clear: we can perform, or we can have what we really want.

The novel’s thesis. Image source.

The narrator refrains from offering any value-judgment regarding the conflict between performance and privacy – until the very end. We catch up with the Chevalier after a wonderful night of sex which he’s just realising was a one-night stand. It’s his lover who arranged this night; who decided it’d be a one-night stand; who has imposed silence. The Chevalier accepts all this. He decides to slow down and remember this night, forever privately:

“No tomorrow.

“No audience.

“I beg you, friend, be happy. I have a vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.”

Is this a call to us to get back in touch with our private desires, to act in accordance with interpersonal instincts – disregarding any impulse to impress, perform for, or live through other people’s eyes? Insofar as the Chevalier represents slowness (but, then, so does his lover: who has staged all this as a performance directed at multiple viewers), I think so.

Kundera’s characters are intensely realistic, though existing primarily via psycho-symbolic analyses of isolated moments, conflicts, or life-defining themes. None of the characters in Slowness is given any background, bar the Czech intellectual. Direct conversation is sparse. Still, in Kundera’s analysis, the essence of each character is vividly illuminated.

Kundera breaks all the rules and still writes great literature. He juxtaposes numerous stories in a short space, without confusing the reader. His fourth-wall breachings do not erode the suspension of disbelief. Much of Slowness is told, rather than shown – but it works. Entire chapters are given over to philosophical expositions and dialectics: but these directly inform the narrative. The approach to character straddles the psychological and the symbolical: but yields nuanced, more-real-than-life people observed with love and detachment.


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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