Short Shrift

Milan Kundera




           THERE'S NO BETTER way to control the game than to make up the rules, and so Milan Kundera, the philosopher-king of contemporary fiction, has taken it upon himself to redefine the novel. He started by claiming simply in 1980 that the novelist, ideally, should "desire to grasp his subject from all sides and in the fullest possible completeness." Then he upped the stakes: "Only a literary work that reveals an unknown fragment of human existence has a reason for being," he told an interviewer in 1982. "To be a writer does not mean to preach a truth, it means to discover a truth." And not just part of the truth. In a 1991 New York Review of Books article, Kundera wrote that as many truths should be crammed in as possible: "A work of art is a crossroads; the number of paths that meet in it seems to me to be closely related to the work's artistic value."

           Of course, he was preaching to the converted, declaiming as a star on the heels of his success with the bestseller, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the less popular but charming books The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Kundera was a romantic hero, an expatriate who had spoken against, was censored in, and eventually forced out of his native Czechoslovakia. He became a star because he managed to sell a sophisticated narrative style to an ordinarily resistant public, employing, as the author himself helpfully pointed out in another interview: "ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historic fact, [and] flight of fantasy... combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music." Kundera was the Warhol of letters, presenting complicated stuff in an easily digested, popular form; he was a man attacked by the evil empire for telling love stories. He was all that, and a bowl of pudding.

           But much has changed. Communism fell, Prague is the new frontier of the venture capitalist, and Milan Kundera has fallen out of love with love. His latest novel, Slowness, is a meditation on technology's impact on modern life, with forays into the varieties of deceit, pride, politics, and pathos. As much as Kundera believes novels are showcases for "previously unknown aspects of existence," he's also said that critics are supposed to merely point out what artists are doing--they are "discoverers of discoveries."

           So here I go. If "a work of art is a crossroads," then the number of paths that meet in Slowness is at least four, travelled by four sets of characters. First there is the narrator and his wife (who may be taken to be the real-life Milan and his wife Vera, since they bear those names). Milan and Vera arrive at a French chateau protesting speed: "the form
of ecstasy the technical revolution
has bestowed on man.... A curious alliance: the cold impersonality of technology with the flames of ecstasy.... Ah, where have they gone,
the amblers of yesteryear?"

           The amblers arrive, lovers lifted from an 18th century romance by Vivant Denon. They are Madame de T.; her one-night-stand (the Chevalier); her lover (the Marquis); and her husband. Madame de T. and the Chevalier explore the pleasures of slowness, epicureanism, and hedonism. This is the path of memory: "the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting."

           The intensely forgetting people are a bunch of French politicians/intellectuals--bumbling hypocrites and sophomoric chatterers. They grapple with technology, the omnipresence of cameras, and the media-fed world. ("There was one kind of fame from before the invention of photography, and another kind thereafter," one tells us.) Two of these intellectuals, pursuing this newer kind of fame, end up at the chateau at a conference. There they cross the novel's fourth path: that of an aging Czech scientist who represents a new, post-Communist period of history. The Czech's "glory as a victim of persecution no longer exists," because "our period is obsessed by the desire to forget, and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives up to the demon of speed..."

           If this sounds like a novel of ideas, that's because it is. In fact, it is a novel of ideas, corollaries, discoveries, and wit--and not a novel of character, plot, intrigue, or warmth. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems that Horace's dictate that art should entertain and instruct still works pretty well. If you take the "entertainment" out of a novel, is it still a novel, or just a long essay? While Slowness's characters are clearly articulating fresh ideas, they're impossible to care about; with a book that's only about 35,000 words long,they're hardly around enough to get attached to. It's a shame that someone as talented as Kundera, and with such a ready audience, has given up on the stories with heroes and crying and laughing in favor of the avant-garde pleasures of droll "discoveries." Just because you rewrite the rules, doesn't mean anyone's going to play your game.

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