(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A wit once quipped that Ford Madox Ford’s exquisitely nuanced The Good Soldier (1915) is the finest French novel in the English language.The Joke (1967; English translation 1969, revised 1982), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978; English translation 1980), and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1985; English translation 1984) established Milan Kundera as the finest French novelist in the Czech language. Political repression in his native land impelled Kundera, who was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, to abandon Prague for Paris in 1975. Yet he has continued to deploy his native Slavic tongue to fashion elegant philosophical fictions. Kundera has published two books of nonfiction, The Art of the Novel (1986; English translation 1988) andTestaments Betrayed (1993; English translation 1995), in French. YetSlowness is his debut novel in the language of Diderot, whose Jacques the Fatalist (1796) he adapted into the play Jacques and His Master in 1981, and La Rochefoucauld, whose epigrammatic wit Kundera emulates. With this lapidary book, capably translated into English by Linda Asher, he has become the finest Czech novelist in the French language.

“You’ve often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it,” says Véra, identified as the wife of the author, whose verbal inventions haunt her dreams, defying the boundaries between fiction and actuality. Slowness is very like that novel, except that an indulgent reader is also likely to derive considerable pleasure from its ludic prose. Unsympathetic reviewers, taking the cunning “author” at his word about abjuring serious words, have dismissed the book as self-indulgent fluff. Others, willing to forsake the conventions of realism, delight in an ostensible trifle that ends up offering substantial thoughts about pleasure and accomplishment. Slowness is a morality play that embraces playfulness as the supreme morality. In The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, Kundera praised the European novel as the form that most fundamentally embodies freedom and the one whose highest morality is expressed in the suspension of moral judgment. Slowness is a gloss on those books, an overt attempt, by a cosmopolitan, translingual transnational, to write the prototypical European novel.

In homage to the earnest flippancy of his adopted culture, Kundera appropriates the characters and plot from an obscure eighteenth century French novella, Point de lendemain (1777; No Tomorrow) by Vivant Denon. He crosscuts between rehearsing its account of an adulterous assignation and describing the sexual escapades at a contemporary convention of entomologists that happens to take place at the same rural estate, outside Paris. In the late twentieth century, it has become a hotel, and, accompanied by his wife, the author chances to check into it, too, as he begins his narrative. Through the unity of place,Slowness conflates three stories: a fictional seduction in the eighteenth century, a fictional fiasco in the twentieth century, and a visit by the author and his wife to the scene of both farces.

Summarizing Denon’s story, the author recounts how the beautiful Madame de T. lures a twenty-year-old Chevalier to her château for a dreamy midsummer night of languorous, illicit caresses, or perhaps to divert her husband’s suspicions from the Marquis who is her true lover. Like the reader, the Chevalier is left pondering the motives for the fleeting pleasure he has experienced. Two centuries later, a Parisian intellectual named Vincent, intent on showing up a pompous intellectual named Jacques- Alain Berck, attends a conference on insects held at the same château that was the location for the sexual exploits of Madame de T.

Berck spurns the grotesque amorous advances of a television producer named Immaculata. Bored by the scholarly proceedings, however, Vincent is in the process of seducing a typist named Julie by the side of the swimming pool, when their private congress is dramatically interrupted. Although frustrated in his desire to consummate his passion, Vincent considers contriving a lascivious account of his escapade to arouse the admiration and envy of confidants who did not attend the proceedings. The morning after, Vincent, the Chevalier, and the author—denizens of very different ontological realms—encounter one another as each departs the same château.


(The entire section is 1850 words.)