• Friday, January 14th, 2022

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, to a middle-class family. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a musicologist who taught him to play the piano, which Milan took further by studying musicology and musical composition.

Milan Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics for two terms at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and scriptwriting. He graduated in 1952 and worked as a lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However, he rejoined the party in 1956 and was discharged in the seventies. Kundera’s works were banned, and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Milan Kundera and his wife Vera left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

Milan Kundera has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize, and in 1987 he won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize, and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

In his first French written novel, Slowness, published in 1995, Milan Kundera revives the metaphysical, meditative novels that prevailed earlier in France with the celebrated Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and which became neglected after the end of the French age of enlightenment.

The novel’s various events, pivoting from the twentieth to the eighteenth-century, are set in the same place, an eighteenth-century château converted into a hotel. The novel’s subject – slowness – is hinted at from the beginning of the novel when Vera and Milan, the married couple, driving out of Paris to spend the evening and night in a château, observe a fast driver behind them who is impatient to overtake.

From this happening commences the author’s lyrical apologia of slowness against fastness, establishing how the first is suitable for absorbing pleasant memories and leads to bright meditative thoughts. Contrarily, the latter is designed for escapism connected to the aspiration to evade unpleasant thoughts.

The author goes further in his contemplation by juxtaposing the art of slowness in the eighteenth century with Madame de T. and the Chevalier, in the short libertine novel published in 1777, “Point de lendemain” (No Tomorrow) written by the French writer Vivant Denon, compared to the exhilarating speed of our modern time portrayed by the entomologist Vincent.

Madame de T. used the art of slow seduction, striving to reach the pinnacle of desire before the pleasurable delight of consummation. Her invited Chevalier has to follow by playing the game. Nothing is hurried, a walk in the château’s vast grounds, few words are said, some insinuations, whispers, their bodies approach one another, in an attempt to ignite further the long-awaited climax.

Vincent is the archetype of his generation, rushing to everything, from one place to another and from one sexual relationship to another. Without savouring any moment of it, which induces him to want to forget and erase the failure of his horrid disastrous encounters by speeding. The only one desire he has is to forget his aborted adventure fast, “his whole disastrous night, erase it, wipe it out – and at this moment, he feels an unquenchable thirst for speed. His step firm, he hastens towards his motorcycle, he desires his motorcycle…on which he will forget everything, on which he will forget himself”.

Kundera also mentions another of his favourite eighteenth-century novels, “Les liaisons dangereuses” by Pierre Chaderlos de Laclos, considered one of the significant eighteenth-century literary accomplishments. The story of another libertine couple, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont who had no concern for sentiments because what only counts for them is the enjoyable pleasure ensuing their conquests.

The author goes further in his approach by elucidating his theories opposing sensuality, scientific knowledge, forethought and tact against self-display and theatrics. These theories are embodied by the fame-seeking Berck, whose boastful attitude leads Kundera to refer to him as “the dancer”.

The interwoven plot lines, fiction, reality, themes and characters come together at the end of the novel when the hasty entomologist, Vincent, meets the decelerated Chevalier. The twentieth- century confronts the eighteenth face to face. Eighteenth-century procedure meets twentieth- century improvisation.

The short, dense novel, taking place over one night, gives the reader food for thought, as intended by the writer who stirred few subjects like the present-day hustle and desire to maximise everything taking away the pleasurable things of life that need to be savoured slowly to be appreciated.

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Category: Book Reviews
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