Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Slowness, by Milan Kundera

This 1995 novel may seem lightweight, being only 150 pages of comfortably-spaced type. Nevertheless, Kundera’s observations are anything but slight. He interweaves three stories: a stand-in for the author, in first person, traveling with his wife and sojourning at a French chateau, a country house which has seen a few things over the centuries. The second story is from two hundred years before, being the tale best known as Les Liaisons Dangereuses in which a trio of lovers play at backstabbing in subtle and clever ways. The third is contemporaneous with our author character – a young man, Vincent, striving to win the favor of a philosopher he idolizes, does the foolish sorts of things one does when trying to impress those far above his capabilities. 

The lovers of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have a presence in this chateau, and various characters see and hear them. Vincent has come to the chateau to attend an entomologists’ conference, so he can witness his philosopher’s nemesis, Berck, staging a moment of importance by being granted an honorary degree in entomology. Vincent intends to steal Berck’s limelight, taking him down a peg. One of the entomologists is a Czech national attending his first conference since Soviet tanks rolled into Prague twenty years earlier, and in an emotional moment at the podium he recounts that story and his gratitude to be here, forgetting entirely the paper he is to present. 

Kundera moves his characters like chess pieces, giving and thwarting advantage in situations that provoke both superiority and ridicule:
"After his public performances, Berck always seems a little drunk; his voice firm, derisive, and loud, he interrupts the Czech scientist: “I know, my dear colleague, I know just as well as you do that Mickiewicz was not an entomologist. [although the Czech has been trying to say that Mickiewicz is not Czech but Polish] In fact, very rarely are poets entomologists. But despite this handicap, they are the pride of the entire human race, of which, if you’ll allow me, entomologists, yourself included, are a part.” 
A great liberating laugh bursts out like a head of steam too long confined; indeed, ever since they realized that this gentleman so moved by himself had forgotten to read his paper, the entomologists have all been dying to laugh. Berck’s impertinent remarks have finally freed them of their scruples, and they roar without bothering to hide their delight. The Czech scientist is taken aback: what has happened to the respect his colleagues were showing him only ten minutes earlier? How is it possible that they are laughing, that they are permitting themselves to laugh? Can people move so easily from veneration to contempt? (Oh yes, dear fellow, oh yes.) Is goodwill so fragile, so precarious a thing, then? (Of course, dear fellow, of course.)" 

Kundera is provocative and a bit sly, setting up people to knock them down. The reader is in on the joke, but the characters are introspective enough that the author is not scorning them so much as showing his familiarity with the ways we mistreat our fellows.