BOOKS FICTION: A light art and a new tongue

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SLOWNESS by Milan Kundera trs Linda Asher, Faber pounds 12.99 Any new work by Milan Kundera is an event of importance, but this novel is of especial interest since it is the first written not in the author's native language but in that of the country where he has made his home for the last 20 years, France. Kundera thus joins a select group of 20th-century authors who, for one reason or another, have chosen to take the most radical stop a writer can make: renouncing their "mother tongue", and thereby calling into question all the cultural and aesthetic assumptions packed into those two words.

For Beckett, the move into French seems to have been at once a flight from an exhibitionistic facility he had come to despise (not to mention the gigantic penumbra of Joyce) and a means of forcing a confrontation with the limits of what is sayable per se. Nabokov always maintained that his abandonment of "my natural idiom, my untrammelled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English" was "a personal tragedy" imposed on him by events, but recent studies, notably by Michael Wood, suggest that he may have protested too much.

If, in Kundera's case, history appears to have repeated itself - as predicted by the ideological oppressor of his youth, an irony no one is better equipped to appreciate - it is with a distinctly farcical touch. After years as a "Czech intellectual in exile", Kundera is now perfectly free to return to Prague, but has elected not to do so. Deprived of its political and cultural significance, living in Paris and writing in Czech looks less like a weighty gesture than an idiosyncrasy, rather like living in New York and writing in Finnish.

France has offered Kundera not just a new medium but also a new form: the one Henry James ecstatically referred to as "the dear, the blessed nouvelle". It's not difficult to think of several recent works of fiction which richly deserve the title Slowness - entries on a postcard, please - but this is not one. Rapid, brief, intelligent, sexy and amusing, it also possesses an abundance of that rare and underrated quality, charm. If the narrative observes (with one important exception) the classical unities so dear to the ancien regime, this is hardly coincidental. The action takes place during one night at a former chateau, now a country house hotel, haunted, it turns out, by the characters of a novella by the suggestively named Vivant Denon which "figures among the literary works that seem best to represent the art and the spirit of the 18th century".

Among the guests are a writer and his wife, and the delegates and accompanying entourage attending an international conference of entomologists, all of whom are subjected to the same detailed and dispassionate scrutiny which they devote to their own object of study. There is a hilarious caricature of one of the new French intellectual media stars, and a moving portrait of a Pnin-esque Czech entomologist who is finally able to exercise his profession again, too old and too late, after 20 years enforced activity as a construction worker.

But, as always in Kundera, the most prominent characters are ideas; in this case the contrast between speed/publicity/collective amnesia (the present) and slowness/secrecy/ memory (the imagined past). If this sounds like a contribution to the "why oh why?" school of facile nostalgia, nothing could be further from the truth. With dry wit and perfect timing, Kundera weaves anecdote and analysis until they seem inseparable, producing insights which are always fresh and unexpected: "The way contemporary history is told is like a huge concert where they present all Beethoven's 138 opuses one after the other, but actually playing just the first eight bars of each."

In an evidently self-referential conversation, the writer's wife (who has the same name as Kundera's wife) warns her husband against writing the novel "without a single serious word in it, a Big Piece of Nonsense for Your Own Pleasure" which he has often told her about. "I'm warning you. Seriousness kept you safe. The lack of seriousness will leave you naked to the wolves." There is no danger of that here. Kundera is an old hand at exploring the scandalously intimate links between seriousness and nonsense, and this new work confirms his mastery while adding a Gallic lightness of touch worthy of the axiom which Sartre unexpectedly quoted in his autobiography: Glissez, mortels, n'appuyez pas.