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Slowness: A Novel
by Milan Kundera
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Rating:
Reviewed by: John Walsh

Men have been projecting abstract ideas onto women's bodies throughout history: justice, the Muses, victory, wisdom and numerous other qualities have been portrayed in the female form, often naked or semi-naked as well. Consequently, artistic representations of how men can affect the world very often involve doing things to beautiful female bodies - and this is an idea that persists in contemporary fiction, since it has sunk into the consciousness of most if not all people. This is an act that also exists at the mundane level - for most men, their only means of both affecting the world and coming into contact with the combination of beauty and pleasure is in the act of making love. So, while, to misquote Freud, sometimes a woman is just a woman, in art and in this case literature, women and their bodies bear a freight of meaning above and beyond the obvious. Quite how a world of equality without discrimination can be achieved while people maintain these ideas remains to be seen.

Milan Kundera has throughout his work used the idea of seduction and love making as a representation of the limited ability of a person, usually a man, to make an impression on the world around him. There is a further layer of meaning attached to his identity as a Czech living behind the iron curtain, as it then was. The Communist world was resolutely puritan in nature - on of the worst daily privations of people living in the Communist world on a day-to-day basis resulted from the unwillingness of authorities to trust them to enjoy themselves in personal relationships and interactions. The act of establishing a relationship with a woman - generally framed as a seduction - is therefore both a pleasurable one (albeit it might also be an act of personal betrayal to a long-term partner) and a subversive one. It can result not just in domestic complications but disgrace and even imprisonment - that is the subject of The Joke, one of Kundera's earlier and best works. In recent years, of course, Kundera has moved to France and begun writing in French - this novel, Slowness, was translated from the French by Linda Asher and, while reading the text, I forgot that it had been written in French, which is perhaps the best praise a translator can receive. In France, the act of seduction has an additional layer of meaning relating to the concept of modernization and the rise of the bourgeoisie and their attempt not just to find a place in society but also to affect the world on their own terms. This layer of meaning is incorporated into the text of Slowness through the extensive use of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel of pre-revolutionary intrigue by Pierre Ambrose Francois Choderlos de Laclos which is probably better known outside France in its screen version. In that text, conspirators use sex as a means of manipulating people to improve their status and as a pleasurable aspect of life. Members of lower classes may be drawn into this aristocratic intrigue and have opportunities to see how the world is really governed before, most commonly, being roughly ejected from that paradise.

In Slowness, then, the reasons why the scientist from Eastern Europe cannot simply enjoy the good fortune of finding an attractive young woman willing to spend the night with him are more complex than the simply comic (although there is comedy in the antics he cannot seem to avoid). This story - which occupies a day and a night, is contrasted with the abusive and exploitative relationship between a woman, Véra and her cameraman lover, in which she resorts to a parody of female wiles to get what she wants - the ability apparently to have an impact on the world through giving access to her own body. These actions are laid out - with enviable brevity and lightness of tone - against the eponymous theme; the obsession of the contemporary world with speed has, according to the narrator, robbed the achievement of desirable goals of their meaning. People no longer have time for the slow courtship and maturing of their desires and the pleasures of expectation and anticipation. When the object of desire can be had immediately, there is much less pleasure and meaning to be had from the experience. We of course will read this will thinking of the nature of modern capitalism, in which it is the ever-increasing velocity of capital (buy-consume-earn-buy-consume) that provides any stability in the system at all.

Kundera claims that this short novel, my edition has only 132 pages, is a mere divertissement without a 'single serious word.' That is not entirely true.


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