Milan Kundera's novella, Slowness, predicates itself on the autobiographical and the meditative, as if we're supposed to read the narrator as Kundera, and his wife as his own, as she goes by the name of Kundera's spouse: Vera. The first person narrator also shares with Kundera the sort of observations we find in the essay collections and interviews, in The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed and The Curtain, and in the authorial digressions in many of his novels. The narrator here says "there was one kind of fame before the invention of photography, and another kind thereafter. The Czech king of Wenceslaus, in the fourteenth century, liked to visit the Prague Inns and chat incognito with the common folk. He had power, fame, liberty. Prince Charles has no power, no freedom, but enormous fame." Doesn't it sound a bit like comments from Immortality, where the narrator talks of imagology? "What matters is that this word finally lets us put under one roof something that goes by so many names: advertising agencies, political campaign managers; designers who devise the shape of everything from cars to gym equipment; fashion stylists; barbers; show business stars dictating the norms of physical beauty that all branches of imagology obey." Imagology is how modern fame is produced. Prince Charles would be a product of this imagology as Wenceslaus clearly would not be.
In the Art of the Novel, Kundera offers a series of partis pris about what he will and will not do in his fiction. "I never use the word [Czechoslovakia] in any of my novels, even though the action is generally set there." "An adjective [Soviet] I do not use." "The only context for grasping a novel's worth is the history of the European novel. The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes." The narrator in Slowness says of his term, 'existential mathematics': "the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting. From that equation we can deduce corollaries, for instance this one: our period is given over to the demon of speed, and that is the reason it so easily forgets its own self." The idea is as assertively presented as the partis pris in The Art of the Novel. Though Kundera quotes approvingly a Broch comment on Broch, Kafka and Musil, saying none of them have 'real biographies', Kundera on the other hand does seem to have a fictional biography, as if much of his work is playing a game of peekaboo with the reader's interest in the author. Indeed Kundera seems a fine example of somebody who doth protest too much: who wants to claim that the work should stand on its own, but cannot help offering little asides that implicate him in the material.
In The Curtain, Kundera gives us a mini-chapter called 'They Killed my Albertine'. In it he says that as an adolescent the figure of Albertine in Proust's In Search of Lost Time fascinated him; she was "the most captivating of all female names." Much later he heard that Albertine was based not on a woman, but on a man, a man with whom Proust had been in love. They killed my Albertine, Kundera notes, and quotes Flaubert. "The artist must make posterity believe he never lived." It is echoed in The Art of the Novel where Kundera says "the moment Kafka attracts more attention than Joseph K. Kafka's posthumous death begins." Yet in The Art of the Novel, Kundera mentions the middle-aged man in Life is Elsewhere, a fit figure who lives alone surrounded by books in a small apartment, and says "The middle aged-man, be it said in passing, is of all my characters the one closest to me." For someone so interested in protecting authorial anonymity for the purposes of the work's own imagination, this is an unusual aside.
However our purpose isn't to pick away at Kundera's contradictions, but instead work with the problematic of what we'll call the 'authorially imaginative', the presence an author has within the work that is not quite the same thing as the 'real person', but cannot help invoke the narrator/writer as a figure in the text.
Out of this figure Kundera shapes a novella that would surely be shapeless without the authorially imaginative, without a strong subjectivity drawing the elements together, and especially the two interlinked stories that interest him here. The first is of various characters that happen to be at the chateau for an entomology conference the evening that Vera and the narrator visit; the other from a book by Vivant Denon called No Tomorrow. In the short book, Kundera explains, a young chevalier is used unwittingly as a decoy: he gets to make love to the lady of the house so that the husband will fear his presence and not that of the marquis she actually loves. Most of the book however is given over to the story of the other guests at the cheateau now, and various 'meditative digressions' with Kundera weaving his thoughts into the text.
When we talked of the authorially imaginative we did not quite mean the semi-autobiographical: from Updike to Roth to Bolano, writers create alter egos where we see that the biographical information about their lives shares similarities with the fictional works. Richard Maple, Zuckerman and Belano are alternative fictional identities, but Kundera has used the term 'experimental selves' to describe his characters, and it might usefully define his own role in his work. But the reason why we also use the authorially imaginative is that without this authorial presence, a book like Slowness wouldn't readily hold together. When the narrator digresses from having dinner and going back to the hotel room and watching a bit of television, he does so not with the casual aside of a first person character or a third person narrator passing briefly through the thoughts of the character thinking. No, it is an opportunity for the narrator to offer up a disquisition, a chance to meditate upon a subject that has far more to say about the idea than the character offering it. In even a modern novel like Herzog, Bellow's narrator says in an early passage "there was a certain wisdom in it, he thought, as if by staggering he could recover his balance, or by admitting a bit of madness come to his senses" and later says, "And he enjoyed a joke on himself. Now, for instance, he had packed his summer clothes he couldn't afford and was making his getaway to Montauk with her." Bellow here doesn't offer the authorially imaginative, but the characterisationally specific. Any thought the character has is closely affiliated with his existential condition at that moment. "There, Herzog's thoughts, like those of machines in the loft she had heard yesterday in the taxi, stopped by traffic in the garment district, plunged and thundered with endless - infinite! - hungry, electrical power, stitching fabric with inexhaustible energy." These are characterisationally integrated thoughts, not authorially imaginative ones. We have a strong sense of the character constantly, where in Kundera's work we often have the digression leaving the character far behind. When at the end of the digression Vera says 'bedtime' and turns off the television, we may have forgotten that the narrator and Vera were watching it. The idea about seeing millions of children dying of starvation in Africa allows the narrator to wonder why "we never saw an adult suffering on the screen, even though we watched the news every day." The narrator and Vera's characterisational specifics are almost irrelevant to the meditation.
Is there a place for this sort of material in the world of fiction, in a world of imaginative creation, or is Kundera trespassing on the form with the essay? Interviewing Kundera, Philip Roth asked him about The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. "This book is not a novel, and yet in the text you declare: This book is a novel in the form of variations. So then - is it a novel or not?" Many a reader approaching Kundera's work might understandably say of it is it fiction or not? Does it manage to create a vivid fictional universe? Kundera would reply his purpose isn't to do such a thing; that readers who expect the novel to dramatise are caught in a specific notion of the form. That the novel needn't focus especially on a story dramatised, but can allow for what Kundera calls "novelistic thinking": an approach "fiercely independent of any system of preconceived ideas." Including, of course, the idea of what a novel should be. For Kundera, a book can be fearsomely trivial, evident when he says In The Curtain, "basing a novel on an anecdote, on a joke, must have seemed to [Polish novelist] Gombrowicz's readers a modernist provocation," but must still be a meaningful text. If Slowness is a dramatically trivial work as it focuses on not much more than a night at a Chateau, how is the writer to give texture to that triviality?
This is where the coherence we mentioned earlier meets what we will call the 'transcendence of the trivial'. Perhaps the great writer of such an approach is one Kundera of course greatly admires, his fellow Czech Franz Kafka. Kafka could write a brilliant story like Bachelor's Ill Luck or Rejection that would be based barely on an event at all. The interior narrative sensitivity would create feelings that the story viewed externally couldn't possibly justify. In the first instance as a bachelor muses over his loneliness, and in the second on a hypothetical exchange with a young woman, Kafka charges the story with sensitivity that means he can eschew event for feeling. Kundera is not a 'sensitive' writer in the manner of Kafka, but he also looks for the minimalist event to be filled with the meaningful. In Slowness, Kundera offers a chapter on a Czech scientist who feels "melancholy after seeing the circumflexes incorrectly positioned over his name... But where did he get his pride from?"
The narrator then digresses through an argument describing the nature of the scientist's pride. It gives the narrator the chance to muse over why a man who is dismissed (like the scientist) for political reasons, retains the pride that the person dismissed for economic reasons does not. Now the scientist's political position was accomplished not as an act of courage, we are informed. Nevertheless "the scientist's pride is due to the fact that he stepped on to the stage of history not at just any random moment but at the exact moment when the lights came up on it." He feels proud because he was accidentally part of history; not for an action as such. The problem with the misplaced circumflex and the pride he feels in his country lies there; that he was touched by the light of history. Other scientists in the room from Norway, France, England and elsewhere have not been so touched. His pride is not heroic, but essentially accidental. A narratively concerned writer would have created dramatic significance out of the misplaced accent, but Kundera utilises it chiefly for authorial imaginativeness. Certainly in the wake of this moment the scientist gives a speech where he does mention how he lost his job and was employed for years as a manual worker, but Kundera's causality here is still chiefly meditative. The scientist makes no issue of the circumflex which would thus have allowed everybody to understand where this sudden moment of pride comes from in his speech. Here the trivial becomes significant, but it is the narrrator's analytic ingenuity that creates the linkage; not dramatic inevitability.
This is so true of the book generally that it may even seem incoherent. It is an entirely justifiable claim if coherence consists of cause and effect narrative. But Kundera practises meditative narration where he can create interrogative spaces that still the narrative rather than further it: passages that give the book 'slowness'. In one passage the narrator talks of the TV intellectual Berck, and Immaculata "an old schoolmate whom, as a kid, he used to covet in vain." Seeing him on television twenty years later "she instantly understood she had always loved him." She writes him a letter talking of their 'innocent love', but Berck remembers "that, far from being innocent, his love had been whoppingly lustful and that he had felt humiliated when she ruthlessly rejected him." It was indeed why he had nicknamed her all those years before "Immaculata, the Unstained." He ignores the letter and she increasingly hounds him. Then he hears that someone wants to do a profile, and later discovers it is none other than Immaculata. When he refuses, the television chief is surprised by what he sees as Berck's surprising modesty. The narrator follows this chapter (13) with another where he says it reminds him of a story concerning Henry Kissinger. A journalist becomes obsessed with Kissinger, despite claiming that he left her "sexually cold", and, on noting how badly he dressed, that "he must be a poor lover". The narrator insists that the obsession wasn't really about Kissinger as such, but about the urge to write a book. "Even in her first encounter with her idol, this book was sitting in majesty, invisible, on a little table between them, being from that moment forward the acknowledged and unconscious objective of her whole adventure." "Kissinger was for her a mythological steed, a winged horse that her self would mount for her great flight across the sky." The narrator doesn't return to the story of Immaculata and Berck in the next chapter, but digresses again, saying "being among the elect is a theological notion".
In most novels, or novellas, the narrative takes over and the author recedes, the invisible puppeteer giving the reader the impression that the narration flows through causal links that create the feeling of inevitability. As Francois Ricard says in his book on Kundera's work, Agnes's Final Afternoon, this refusal is a key element in reading Kundera. He notices "what I would call the nonobliteration of the author and his assertion in the very midst of the narration through a clearly identified voice and thought that fear neither to indicate their presence nor to declare their position concerning the depicted universe, yet not removing its autonomy or its own reality." Kundera in accepting the nonobliteration of the author, inevitably, in the process, cannot equally deny his own presence in the work. In Kundera's writing it is not "they" - the biographers and critics - who kill his own Albertines: his Tomas and Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the middle-aged man in Life is Elsewhere, Agnes in Immortality. Kundera one might say contributes to this assassination as if he never lets his characters breathe; never quite gives them the autonomy to become fully imaginary beings.
However our purpose here has not been to condemn Kundera for his inadequacies, but much more to defend his achievement: his capacity both to kill and resurrect character simultaneously. He creates characters who do breathe, but not especially through description and plot, but more through an authorial presence that needn't result in character absence. Instead, in Slowness, an evening at a Chateau can become a short book about many things: about celebrity, speed and slowness, national identity, false personal pride, the western perception of starving Africa. Whether all this has a place in a novel is a question nobody has pursued more consistently than Kundera; and answered it through his own work, his essays and his fictions. As he says in the introduction to The Art of the Novel: "Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner's confession." Yet few other practitioners would have quite the need to confess as Kundera violates so many rules of conventional form.
© Tony McKibbin