Slowness – Juliette and Justine

I read Kundera’s first novel, Slowness, while in the train today, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Kundera weaves together several plots and perspectives- and it almost seems like each version is a precursor of his other works. I especially like it when he was discussing the French epistolatory novel,  Les Liaisons Dangereouses by Pierre Choderlos, which I only because of Peter Brook’s version of another Sade play.

From the review by James Kowles:

Slowness, Milan Kundera’s newest novel-and his first written in French rather than his native Czech-is a philosophical tragi-comedy that will delight, disgust, and challenge any reader willing to engage with its bizarre and compelling logic. Fans of Kundera’s earlier work will find themselves on familiar ground here: the long philosophical asides; the multiple points of view; the black humor; the cold, cerebral eroticism. The difference is that Kundera’s French novel seems finally to have achieved the lightness that the author values so highly and for which his Czech novels strive but often fail to realize.

Under pressure from Kundera’s forceful associative intellect, a meditation on slowness versus speed moves into more esoteric discussions of Epicureanism, the art of amorous conversation, the relation of speed to memory, the provincialism of his former comrades from Communist Europe and–more. As delightful as these diversions are, they ultimately serve the book’s central quest to understand the existential nature of “the dancer.” What is “the dancer”? This is vintage Kundera: the novel always raises more questions than it answers.

The plot follows an eclectic group of misfits to a converted 18th-century chateau, where they are to attend a conference of entomologists. The narrator, Milan, and his wife have gone to the chateau for a weekend getaway. At the same time, we follow the story of a young Chevalier who is seduced there on the same night 200 years ago–by the mysterious Madame de T. Confrontations lead to a hilarious climax, but readers will find that Slowness is a moral tale weightier than it first appears.

My French is not very good despite trying for a year, and definitely not good enough to read the original version of this text, pity! I think some things might have been lost in translation. But I was curious, loved the part on the entomologists. And while I was reading, had a similar deja vu sort of feeling that I had which I often do reading Joseph Conrad.

There are often repeated scenes in Conrad’s books – the meeting between the protagonist and a strong, immaculate sort of female character (very Turgenev in her innocence but sudden, overwhelming passion), and the motifs of the ship – of fidelity and dreams, which often surfaces in Conrad’s texts. But particularly enjoyable is how they often surface under the context of different guises, as if Conrad was conducting his own version of internal catharsis, always the scenes unravel in a familiar, disturbing sort of way, and yet each time they are awkwardly moving, even as I recall the exact symbols and images used in the previous texts. In literature, writers often speak of joint themes – the inner psychological trauma of the character, but I often feel that my curiosity is of a different sort, as if linking the author to another character in the text, fantasizing his secrets (the author tells his version of the story, the reader disbelieves it, and imagines something more vivid and tantalizing of her own. In this same way the author has created of himself a fantasy even though he made clear to separate himself from the text).

In the same way, there were various things I curiously recognized about this text – maybe I have been reading too much of Kundera! But the scene of the Czech scientist performing a speech and revealing his emotions on his return to scholarship after being exiled for his political convictions – it brings to mind a scene I read two years ago in Life is Elsewhere, where the artist, compelled by the crowd, presents an even stronger version of his beliefs and convictions despite having questions in his soul – he is pushed to a corner, so to say, and he feels his voice ringing stronger and posing questions- a sort of tormented Aristotle, doomed to repeat the same question in several different guises, and never coming near to the truth, but realizing the gradual emptiness of the beginning assumption.

A new motif in Slowness however, is that of the dancer – a popular one in Prague, and one that brings to mind a bit of Shakespeare, of course! But he presents new facets of thinking of a dancer, particularly one which I enjoyed, on the ‘invisibility of a crowd’ that the dancer is compelled to perform to, which the protagonist believes distinguishes himself from the dancer. The concept of the ‘elect’ and how the confidence of our desires slowly seeps from us. The fantasy of a women, the purity and vulgarity of physical love.

“But only some very small something, because in the particular sense I mean the concept, I’m nothing like the dancer. I think it not only possible but probable that a true dancer, a Berck, a Duberques, would in the presence of a woman be devoid of any desire to show off and seduce. It would never occur to him to tell a story about a typist he’d dragged by the hair to his bed because he had got her mixed up with someone else. Because the audience he’s looking to seduce is not a few specific and visible women, its the great throng of invisible people! Listen, that’s another chapter to be developed in the dancer theory: the invisibility of his audience! That’s what makes for the terrifying modernity of this character! He’s showing off not for you or for me but the whole world! And what is the whole world? An infinity with no faces! An abstraction.”

An amazing book and I think it is one of Kundera’s best. I love the way how in the first plot the woman keeps waking up with little remnants of the other plots! She scolds ‘Kundera’ for thinking strange things of poets, she issues him warnings of unhappy fates, she shudders to think her holiday idyll is haunted. The women are so ancillary yet crucial in Kundera’s works, he reduces yet deconstructs them, and in a strange sadistic way I love to be objectified if its in Kundera’s eyes, to see feminine emotions and convictions taken apart to be criticized as they are as steadfast as a gushing river, yielding and conflicting. Yes, sometimes I admit a little schoolgirl crush on Kundera – I am that salopette girl who sells the protagonist a crossiant in a dark evening and blinks at him curiously with big eyes, and says no more, going back to write a fantasy in a third floor apartment!

On other things. CY and I played our last competition game on Wed, and unfortunately we lost that- but overall we were ranked 2nd, which leaves CY and I rather happy like squirrels! After, the withdrawal symptoms began, as we began missing scrabble…and today we hid away in the office over tiles, discussing the possibility of terms like ‘divagated’ and why ‘ra’ should really be a word! We had consecutive bingoes – she got one over ‘carrion’, and I managed one with ‘spoiled’! Altogether a brilliant, exhilarating time, and there is this moment when I am indeed lost only in the concentrated intensity of finding the anagram which offers the best points option. We are addicted, definitely, and Scrabble brought us some joy in the quiet Friday afternoon.

Some Scrabble photographs to share from the event (and other pictures from the Scrabble club which meets every Monday…now CY and I are enthusiasts of the game, am likely to join!)

CY above deliberating on her strategy for the next move.

Our game with CCRG…I think this was my turn…

Our ‘national’ player battles it out with one of our team members…a very enjoyable game to watch, as all sorts of permutations were tried from A! Haha! A is amazing at scrabble, and it was thanks to A that I started on scrabble again.

Our favourite A permutations (haha!) – he didn’t use them of course, but it was pretty funny seeing them on his tile rack.

Did you know ‘UNGRASS’ is not a word, but ‘UNGRASSED’ is?? Goodness knows why! CY joked about ‘ungrassed’ having the meaning of the ‘regurgitation of grass’ – and thus I keep thinking of vomiting cows!

And another photo of CY and I in the first round…Now you know that I count verrrry….slowly….haha! But we always managed to beat the timer, thank goodness.

One of the most impressive boards for the second match – 2 bingoes scored by the same player, J in the match:

Don’t you dare wish me anything related to Chinese New Year, Beansprouts. You know full well that I dread and dislike CNY with a passion – and it was the same in my youth! I have a girlish delight for Valentine’s Day even in its extravagant, affectionate, fripperies, and often think of it as my favourite day in the year. I am dismayed by the fact that CNY has taken over my surroundings in garish songs and bah gua! Thank goodness I can hide with my cat, remove anything red from my room, and eat the only thing I can accept of CNY (pineapple tarts) and block out all money-related jingles in the corridors.

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