Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Characters and Ideas

by Milan Kundera

"Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?  Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear?  Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of fold song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?" (p 3)

What has become of "slowness" in a world that is growing smaller and moving ever faster? In this short novel Milan Kundera ties slowness to the act of remembering, and speed to the act of forgetting. When one wants to savor, remember, or prolong a moment, one moves and acts slowly. On the other hand, one travels fast in order to forget a past experience. For example, after Vincent's disastrous night at the chateau, he gets on his motorcycle and drives home as fast as he can in order to leave behind the site of his failed romantic endeavor.
Kundera shows the contrast between older and newer ways of thinking and feeling--specifically with the now devalued ideal of hedonism in a culture whose embrace of "speed" as the measure of all things denies us the possibility of having experiences at leisure and recollecting them in tranquility (or, as his unnamed narrator complains, ``Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?'').

The novel is also a meditation on the effects of modernity upon the individual's perception of the world. It is told through a number of plot lines that slowly weave together until they are all united at the end of the book. The narrator visits a chateau on vacation and tells a story that seems to be a combination of fiction and fact. A Chevalier from eighteenth-century France visits the chateau and experiences a night of carefully orchestrated sensual pleasure with its owner, Madame de T. The narrator's friend Vincent visits the hotel and pursues a romance with a girl met in a bar. Berck, a "dancer", meets a woman who once scorned him at the same conference and shows his emptiness to her. Immaculata, the woman who scorned Berck, must deal with her disappointment at learning Berck's apparent perfection is actually a facade.

The story develops as the different perspectives of these characters portrays the impact on the world of modernity, memory and sensuality. Gradually all of the stories come together in a single location and the characters interact, showing how the ideals they represent interact in the world. For example. the modern is connected to the past by having Vincent meet the Chevalier as they both depart. The ideas of sensuality and pleasure have changed as technology provides humanity with tools that speed us to our destination and demand our attention. There is also the suggestion that speed creates vulgarity, as suggested by the parallel seductions held at the chateau. Vincent's seduction of Julie is misguided and ultimately fails. Madame de T's seduction of the Chevalier is deliberate and provides them with a night of pleasure. Speed is associated with failure and the result is that serious consideration requires slowness; speed encourages rash decisions and ultimately failure.
Ideas abound in this Kunderian probe into characters' minds as seen when the concept of the dancer early in the book. The dancer, defined in the story, is a person who constantly seeks the infinite and invisible audience that modern media offers. This fame has a dramatic effect on the life of the dancer and upon people who seek him out.

This novel is typical Kundera in a story where characters and ideas merge inventive and amusing ways, especially with a delicious sensitivity to the convolutions of contemporary self-consciousness. As an aficionado of novels of ideas I appreciate this approach. It is best portrayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Slowness may be seen as a postscript or an introduction to the thoughtful world of Milan Kundera.

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Brian Joseph said...

Terrific commentary as always James.

I too love books that are about ideas.

The concept of slowness being valued over speed is interesting and I think that there is truth to it. This seems pertinent in our modern world where so many of us eat, travel, talk, etc. much too quickly.

Parrish Lantern said...

Haven't read any Kundera, in a long while might have to add him to my list of writers to be revisited.

James said...

Brian and Gary,

Thanks for your comments. I really enjoy reading Kundera's novels. His blend of story and ideas is challenging and fun.