Milan Kundera's new novel Slowness was published in French (the language in which, for the first time in its author's career, it was composed) exactly a year ago, more or less simultaneously with the release of the film Speed. The choice was therefore a plain and unambiguous one: speed or slowness? A film which, predicated on the notion that speed, that emblematic symbol and symptom of modernity, was in itself an unequivocally good thing, hurtled towards its denouement with the inflexible singlemindedness of an arrow which, were it to be distracted by anything on its trajectory, would miss its target? Or a novel which celebrated the self-teasingly Epicurean delight in taking one's own sweet time, which toasted "those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars"?
Such a juxtaposition is apter than one might have expected, since, if it reads not at all like a putative film treatment, the narrative of Slowness does possess a dreamily digressive, faintly filmic feel, most reminiscent of that of Renoir's La Regle du jeu or Resnais's La Vie est un roman. Its present tense (for this is a fiction of multiple tenses, some of them, so to speak, conditional) is set in a chateau in France to which Kundera himself and his wife Vera motor down for a brief break. (The chateau, like so many, has been recycled into a hotel).
Along the way, however, he thinks of "another journey from Paris out to a country chateau", that made by the two protagonists of Vivant Denon's libertine novella Point de lendemain (or No Tomorrow), first published, anonymously, in 1777. That, in turn, segues seamlessly into a commentary on Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the true meaning of the word "hedonism'', which (we are now inside the hotel itself) reminds him of a friend, Vincent, and his unconditional adulation of the intellectual Pontevin, which prompts reflections on the whole phenomenon of the image-obsessed media pundit, which then....
I could go on. And I perhaps ought to, for I have to confess that I simply cannot figure out how he does it. Like all of Kundera's books, Slowness modulates between past and present, between fiction and fantasy, between memoir and essay, but with so slyly agile-footed a grace, so mercurial an insouciance, it seems almost never to touch the ground. (The exceptional limpidity and refinement of the prose may be a function of the fact that, writing fiction in what is for him a foreign language, Kundera has further simplified his never overly-fancy style). Is it a novel set in the eighteenth century illumined by digressions from the twentieth, or vice versa? It is impossible to say.
He walks his memories and musings around the estate of that chateau (a house and its park, interior and exterior - again, it occurs to one, the ideal cinematic space) as apparently idly as if he were walking a cocker spaniel before turning in for the night, and we follow him, slavishly, everywhere.
There are sharp, satirical vignettes en route, all of them rebuking the modern world for its bullying hypocrises. Watching the agony of starving Somalian children on television, Vera asks her husband, "Are there old people dying in that country as well?" An intellectual (whose name, Berck, if spoken aloud, is French for "Yuk'') ponders on whether to kiss an Aids sufferer at a charity dinner. Called upon to speak at a scientific seminar, a long-oppressed Czech entomologist forgets himself in the emotion of the moment, speaks instead about his own, newly-won freedom of speech, happily regains his seat and only then realises to his mortification that he has quite forgotten to deliver his prepared paper on the Musca pragensis.
Reaching its satisfying conclusion after only 132 pages, Slowness can after all claim some kind of narrative speed. Not the breakneck pace of Speed, though, but that, rather more perilous, of an electric fan into whose seemingly inoffensive halo one would be ill-advised to insert one's hand.