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by Tom Rayfiel
History has finally caught up with Milan Kundera. The regime that first seduced and nurtured him, in reaction to which he found his calling, and forged his distinctive style, has disappeared, not just died but vanished, like a bad dream, casting a strange, retrospective insubstantiality over his work. Nowhere is this more evident than in Slowness, a slim yet bloated disquisition on existentialism, sex, the mystical qualities of "the Asshole," and Prince Charles (those last two, alas, separate subjects).Originally written in French, the liner notes proudly announce that this novel, "in the eyes of the French public," turns him "definitively into a French writer." Tour de force or excuse, the book, in English, is one of those damning auto-parodies compulsively cataloguing all the author's linguistic tics and, by now, tired obsessions (shallow Western liberals along with their sexual counterparts, women who like you to "get rough" with them). Gobs of ponderous philosophizing are squeezed, as if from a pastry sock, to embellish the narrative at various points, giving it that toney Euro-feel of a state-neutered culture.
The kernel of the book, not uninteresting in itself, is this observation:
The structure is musical, themes introduced and developed, with much restatement, recalling Kundera's hallmark "lightness," an interplay of incident, a minuet-like dance. The author and his wife, driving, stop at a chateau-turned-hotel for the night. A motorcycle he has glimpsed in his rear view mirror, an imagined 18th century French novel of amorous intrigue, his insomniac thoughts--all combine, using the winding halls of the chateau, the past and present, as the setting for mostly banal meditations on love and time.
Thus, the most promising flower of the Prague Spring ends up extolling the virtues of pre-Revolutionary France, where a young Chevalier and his lover, the noblewoman "Madame de T." (and, by implication, the author himself), are contrasted favorably with today's pathetic, motorbike-riding youth. Wish-fulfillment and escapism don't make for interesting reading. The story doesn't move, doesn't seem impelled by anything. It's just an aging, privileged man shaking his fist as the next generation roars up on the outside to pass him. I wondered, by the end, if the French title of Slowness wasn't Longueur.
Brooklyn, New York
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