cover image Slowness


Milan Kundera. HarperCollins Publishers, $21 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017369-2

Kundera's latest (after Immortality) is a scintillating jeu d'esprit, as coolly elegant and casually brutal as the 18th-century French arts to which the text pays tribute. Indeed, this is the expatriate Czech author's first novel written in French, his adopted homeland's native tongue. The paintings of Fragonard and Watteau, Sade's La Philosophie dans le boudoir, Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses and an obscure novella entitled Point de lendemain, by Vivant Denon, are all invoked by the narrator, who may be Kundera himself (his wife calls him ""Milanku""). He recalls the plot of Point de lendemain while visiting a chateau-turned-hotel, admiring the leisurely hedonism implicit in both these relics of a bygone age. ""Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?"" the narrator asks as he considers the frantic, joyless pursuit of stimulation that modern men and women call pleasure. He remembers-or perhaps invents-a group of French intellectuals determined to demonstrate their political correctness as a means of furthering their ambitions. ""Dancers,"" he calls them, discerning that they are more concerned with displaying their moral purity than with accomplishing anything. The political and sexual maneuverings of these contemporary characters intermingle with the narrator's musings and ongoing retelling of Point de lendemain; in a brilliant and oddly moving finale, the protagonist of the 18th-century novella comes face to face with his present-day counterpart, Vincent, who is incapable of slowing down long enough to appreciate the meaning of the experiences he has just undergone. A deliberate chilliness of tone and the one-dimensionality of Vincent and his peers keep this from being as emotionally engaging as it is intellectually stimulating. Nonetheless, it embodies provocative thoughts on personal and social triviality from a postmodern master. 100,000 first printing; $100,000 ad/promo. (May) FYI: Also in May, HarperPerennial is issuing a new translation of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Aaron Asher, Kundera's longtime editor and publisher, and husband of Linda Ashe. The translation incorporates revisions made by Kundera in the mid-1980s.