Authors: Milan Kundera
About the book
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.
Praise for the book
“A playful envoi from a tender misanthrope; a rant set to music by Mozart.”
—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times
“Irresistible… . Slowness is an ode to sensuous leisure, to the enjoyment of pleasure rather than just the search for it.”
—Cathleen Schine, Mirabella
“A nimble and witty fiction… . Slowness combines literary past and imaginary present.” —Gregory Feeley, Philadelphia Inquirer
“Coolly elegant … casually brutal … brilliant and oddly moving… . It embodies provocative thoughts on personal and social triviality from a master.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This book was originally published in France under the title La Lenteur.
A hardcover edition of this book was published in 1996 by HarperCollins Publishers.
SLOWNESS. Copyright © 1995 by Milan Kundera. Translation copyright © 1996 by Linda Asher. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critic cal articles and reviews. For information address HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
HarperCollins books may be purchased for educational, business, or sales promotional use. For information please write: Special Markets Department, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.
First HarperPerennial edition published 1997. Reprinted in Perennial 2002. Designed by Caitlin Daniels
The Library of Congress has catalogued the hardcover edition as follows:
[La Lenteur. English]
Slowness : a novel / Milan Kundera; translated from the French by Linda Asher.
ISBN 0-06-017369-6 I. Asher, Linda. II. Title. PQ2671.U47L4613 1993 891.8‘635—dc20 96-6253
ISBN 0-06-092841-7 (pbk.)
03 04 05 06 RRD 20 19 18 17 16
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 all changes 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, non-material, 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.
I check the rearview mirror: still the same car unable to pass me because of the oncoming traffic. Beside the driver sits a woman; why doesn’t the man tell her something funny? why doesn’t
he put his hand on her knee? Instead, he’s cursing the driver ahead of him for not going fast enough, and it doesn’t occur to the woman, either, to touch the driver with her hand; mentally she’s at the wheel with him, and she’s cursing me too.
And I think of another journey from Paris out to a country chateau, 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.
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 chateau’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 chateau.
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
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
knows to be Madame de T.‘s lover. The Marquis, who has just arrived at the chateau, 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 RoF (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 it figures among the literary works that seem best to represent the art and the spirit of the eighteenth century.
In everyday language, the term “hedonism” denotes an amoral tendency to a life of sensuality, if not of outright vice. This is inaccurate, of course: Epicurus, the first great theoretician of pleasure, had a highly skeptical understanding of the happy life: pleasure is the absence of suffering. Suffering, then, is the fundamental notion of hedonism: one is happy to the degree that one can avoid suffering, and since pleasures often bring more unhappiness than happiness, Epicurus advises only such pleasures as are prudent and modest. Epicurean wisdom has a melancholy backdrop: flung into the world’s misery, man sees that the only clear and reliable value is the pleasure, however paltry, that he can
feel for himself: a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky (at God’s windows), a caress.
Modest or not, pleasures belong only to the person who experiences them, and a philosopher could justifiably criticize hedonism for its grounding in the self. Yet, as I see it, the Achilles’ heel of hedonism is not that it is self-centered but that it is (ah, would that I were mistaken!) hopelessly Utopian: in fact, I doubt that the hedonist ideal could ever be achieved; Fm afraid the sort of life it advocates for us may not be compatible with human nature.
The art of the eighteenth century drew pleasures out from the fog of moral prohibitions; it brought about the frame of mind we call “libertine,” which beams from the paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, from the pages of Sade, Crebillon the younger, or Charles Duclos. It is why my young friend Vincent adores that century and why, if he could, he would wear the Marquis de Sade’s profile as a badge on his lapel. I share his admiration, but I add (without being really heard) that the true greatness of that art consists not in some propaganda or other for hedonism but in its analysis. That is the reason I consider Les Liaisons
dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos, to be one of the greatest novels of all time.
Its characters are concerned only with the conquest of pleasure. Nonetheless, little by little the reader comes to see that it is less the pleasure than the conquest that attracts them. That it is not the desire for pleasure but the desire for victory that is calling the tune. That what first appears to be a merrily obscene game shifts imperceptibly and ineluctably into a life-and-death struggle. But what does struggle have to do with hedonism? Epicurus wrote: “The wise man seeks no activity related to struggle.”
The epistolary form of Les Liaisons dangereuses is not merely a technical procedure that could easily be replaced by another. The form is eloquent in itself, and it tells us that whatever the characters have undergone they have undergone for the sake of telling about it, for transmitting, communicating, confessing, writing it. In such a world, where everything gets told, the weapon that is both most readily available and most deadly is disclosure. Valmont, the novel’s hero, sends the woman he has seduced a farewell letter that will destroy her; and it is his
lady friend, the Marquise de Merteuil, who dictated it to him, word for word. Later, out of vengeance, the Merteuil woman shows a confidential letter of Valmont’s to his rival; the latter challenges him to a duel, and Valmont dies. After his death, the intimate correspondence between him and Merteuil will be disclosed, and the Marquise will end her days scorned, hounded, and banished.
Nothing in this novel stays a secret exclusive to two persons; everyone seems to live inside an enormous resonating seashell where every whispered word reverberates, swells, into multiple and unending echoes. When I was small, people would tell me that if I set a shell against my ear I would hear the immemorial murmur of the sea. In that same way, every word pronounced in the Laclosian world goes on being heard forever. Is that what it is, the eighteenth century? Is that the famous paradise of pleasure? Or has mankind always lived inside such a resonating shell, without realizing it? Whatever the case, a resonating seashell—that’s not the world of Epicurus, who commanded his disciples: “You shall live hidden!”