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Slowness: Novel, aby Milan Kundera
Synopses & Reviews
We suddenly had the urge to spend the evening and night in a chateau. Many of them in France have become hotels: a square of greenery lost in a stretch of ugliness without greenery; a little plot of walks, trees, birds in the midst of a vast network of highways. I am driving, and in the rearview mirror I notice a car behind me. The small left light is blinking, and the whole car emits waves of impatience. The driver is watching for the chance to pass me; he is watching for the moment the way a hawk watches for a sparrow.
Vera, my wife, says to me: "Every fifty minutes somebody dies on the road in France. Look at them, all these madmen tearing along around us. These are the same people who manage to be so terrifically cautious when an old lady is getting robbed in front of them on the street. How come they have no fear when they're behind the wheel?"
What could I say? Maybe this: the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.
Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man. As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life. This allchanges when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, nonmaterial, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.
A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the flames of ecstasy. I recall an American woman from thirty years ago, with her stern, committed style, a kind of apparatchik of eroticism, who gave me a lecture (chillingly theoretical) on sexual liberation; the word that came up most often in her talk was "orgasm"; I counted: forty-three times. The religion of orgasm: utilitarianism projected into sex life; efficiency versus indolence; coition reduced to an obstacle to be got past as quickly as possible in order to reach an ecstatic explosion, the only true goal of lovemaking and of the universe.
Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars? Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor: "They are gazing at God's windows." A person gazing at God's windows is not bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do, which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated, bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.
And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country ch teau, which took place more than two hundred years ago, the journey of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier who went with her. It is the first time they are so close to each other, and the inexpressible atmosphere of sensuality around them springs from the very slowness of the rhythm: rocked by the motion of the carriage, the two bodies touch, first inadvertently, then advertently, and the story begins.
This is what Vivant Denon's novella tells: a gentleman of twenty goes to the theater one evening. (Neither his name nor his title is mentioned, but I imagine him a chevalier.) In the next box he sees a lady (the novella gives only her initial: Madame de T.); she is a friend of the Comtesse whose lover is the Chevalier. She requests that he see her home after the performance. Surprised by this unequivocal move, and the more disconcerted because he knows Madame de T.'s favorite, a certain Marquis (we never learn his name; we have entered the world of secrecy, where there are no names), the mystified Chevalier finds himself in the carriage beside the lovely lady. After a smooth and pleasant journey, the coach draws to a stop in the countryside, at the ch teau's front steps, where Madame de T.'s husband greets them sullenly. The three of them dine in a grim, taciturn atmosphere, then the husband excuses himself and leaves the two alone.
Then begins their night: a night shaped like a triptych, a night as an excursion in three stages: first, they walk in the park; next, they make love in a pavilion; last, they continue the lovemaking in a secret chamber of the ch teau.
At daybreak they separate. Unable to find his room in the maze of corridors, the Chevalier returns to the park, where, to his astonishment, he encounters the Marquis, the very man he knows to be Madame de T.'s lover. The Marquis, who has just arrived at the ch teau, greets him cheerfully and tells him the reason for the mysterious invitation: Madame de T. needed a screen so that he, the Marquis, would remain unsuspected by the husband. Delighted that the ruse has worked, he taunts the Chevalier who was made to carry out the highly ridiculous mission of fake lover. Exhausted from the night of love, the young man leaves for Paris in the small chaise provided by the grateful Marquis.
Entitled "Point de lendemain" ("No Tomorrow"), the novella was published for the first time in 1777; the author's name was supplanted (since we are in the world of secrecy) by six enigmatic letters, M.D.G.O.D.R., which, if so inclined, one might read as: "M. Denon, Gentilhomme Ordinaire du Roi" (Monsieur Denon, Gentleman-in-waiting to the King). Then, in a very small printing and completely anonymous, it was published again in 1779, and it reappeared the following year under the name of another writer. Further editions appeared in 1802 and in 1812, still without the true author's name; after a half century of neglect, it appeared again in 1866. Since then it was credited to Vivant Denon, and over this century, its reputation has grown steadily. Today itfigures among the literary works that seem best to represent the art and the spirit of the eighteenth century.
Milan Kundera's lightest novel, a divertimento, an opera buffa, Slowness is also the first of this author's fictional works to have been written in French.
Disconcerted and enchanted, the reader follows the narrator of Slowness through a midsummer's night in which two tales of seduction, separated by more than two hundred years, interweave and oscillate between the sublime and the comic. Underlying this libertine fantasy is a profound meditation on contemporary life: about the secret bond between slowness and memory, about the connection between our era's desire to forget and the way we have given ourselves over to the demon of speed. And about "dancers" possessed by the passion to be seen, for whom life is merely a perpetual show emptied of every intimacy and every joy.
From one of the most distinguished writers of modern times comes a libertine fantasy which is also a profound meditation on contemporary life. Ruminating on how the pleasures of slowness have disappeared in today's fast-paced, future-shocked world, Kundera explores the secret bond between slowness and memory and the connection between our era's desire to forget and the ways in which we have given ourselves over to the demon of speed.
About the Author
The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera was born in Brno and has lived in France, his second homeland, since 1975. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Farewell Waltz, Life Is Elsewhere, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and the short-story collection Laughable Loves—all originally written in Czech. His most recent novels Slowness, Identity, and Ignorance, as well as his nonfiction works The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter, were originally written in French.
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