English translation by Linda Asher, 155 pp.
Metaphysical speculation was once happily married to the novel,
practiced to great effect by masters like Voltaire and Diderot. Since the end of the Enlightenment, however, the philosophical novel -- as opposed to the novel of ideas or the novel of social protest -- has
become a rarity. Milan Kundera, who has more or less single-handedly reinvented the form for his own use, is careful to point out that his novels are not engaged in the translation of philosophy into fiction. His
modus operandi is to bring ideas into play -- floating hypotheses, improvising, interrogating. In roomy, expansive novels like ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,''
''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting'' and, most recently, ''Immortality,'' he uses an astonishing spectrum of instruments to get at meaning.
Cutting rapidly from one story to another, interleaving different historical periods, he shifts from anecdote to satire, biography to autobiography, dramatization to historical narrative, ontological meditation to
criticism -- given voice by narrators who range from omniscient to personal, including an invented ''I'' whose name happens to be Milan.
But this richness is anything but disparate: Mr. Kundera, who began his artistic life as a musician, creates remarkable unity by sounding a theme, then circling and returning to it again and again with a great breadth of variations. The next theme he introduces might seem at first unconnected, but as he spins it out, the deep affinities gradually surface.
''Slowness,'' Mr. Kundera's new novel, now translated by Linda Asher, appears to depart from what we have come to expect from him. It is, to begin with, the first novel he has written in French. It is also surprisingly short, less than half the number of pages of his last novel. The action occurs in a single place and, through the novel's witty telescoping of time, over a single night -- a sort of parody of the classical unities.
The novel opens with Vera and Milan Kundera driving out from Paris to a chateau in the country to spend the night. A motorcyclist, bent on passing, appears behind them and prompts a banal observation by Vera that people are utterly without fear when they get behind the wheel. At this, the novel's central subject is announced, in a lyrical meditation on speed and time, technology and the body, escape and engagement, memory and forgetting: ''The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time . . . in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.'' Speed is the form of ecstasy technology has given us, the novel proposes. It then asks, ''Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?''
At the end of this opening, a parallel journey begins, one recounted in a novella Milan has been reading entitled ''Point de Lendemain'' (''No Tomorrow''), by Vivant Denon, an 18th-century libertine who chose to remain anonymous. In it, a young chevalier travels by coach to the same chateau 200 years earlier to keep an assignation with the chatelaine. Their lovemaking, drawn out over a whole night, is informed by the elaborate rules of conduct their century affected. Denon's novel, known only to a small circle in its own time and republished in 1992, has come to represent, the narrator tells us, ''the art and the spirit of the 18th century.''
The young man on the motorcycle, Vincent, the chevalier's modern counterpart, is the protagonist of the third part of Mr. Kundera's fictional triptych. He has arrived at the chateau for a conference on entomology, also attended by a pretty typist named Julie, a Czech scientist whose career was fatally interrupted by the 1968 Russian invasion, a famous leftist intellectual named Berck (in French, ''berck'' is a colloquial expression of disgust), a would-be camp follower who is gainfully employed as a television producer and her devoted slave of a cameraman. The complications that entangle them multiply in the course of the evening with increasing frenzy until what looks like comedy turns to farce, ending in a howlingly funny failed orgy.
Taking the ontological temperature of today and of the pre-revolutionary 18th century, Mr. Kundera finds that the speed we love has beggared us of pleasure. Vincent and Julie's rush to make love in public view leads to a rather entertaining misunderstanding with the former's penis, whose eloquent -- it makes a speech -- but stubborn refusal to cooperate confirms the novel's earlier assertion that in delegating speed to a machine (the motorcycle) we leave the body ''outside the process.''
Through an accumulating tissue of action and metaphor, the novel is proposing that perhaps real freedom doesn't lie in the jettisoning of all restraint. The 18th century framed its lovemaking in high formality, while we celebrate spontaneity. But look here, ''Slowness'' says, the chevalier and his mistress are sexier than their frenetic modern counterparts: ''Everything is composed, confected, artificial, everything is staged, nothing is straightforward, or in other words, everything is art; in this case: the art of prolonging the suspense, better yet: the art of staying as long as possible in a state of arousal.''
Cutting back and forth between Denon's novel and the chateau's unzipped entomology conference, ''Slowness'' floats another hypothesis: that the nature of fame has undergone a profound alteration since the invention of the camera, one that alters the foundation of what Mr. Kundera elsewhere calls our ''map of existence.'' Vivant Denon never claimed authorship of his novel. ''Not that he rejected fame,'' the narrator speculates, ''but fame meant something different in his time; I imagine the audience that he cared about, that he hoped to beguile, was not the mass of strangers today's writer covets but the little company of people he might know personally and respect.''
The modern part of the novel's triptych lays out the proposition that no one now -- in the age of television -- can act in the world without imagining a large and invisible audience. The novel then carries this proposition to its absurd conclusion, in a dark burlesque not unlike the one Voltaire used to prove that all is most emphatically not for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
As all of Milan Kundera's other novels do, ''Slowness'' deals with the issue of how the novel defines itself -- how does the audience novelists write for change the way the writing takes shape? And, like the novel's arrogant intellectual, Pontevin, who chooses to spin ideas for his own pleasure only, do writers risk turning themselves into monsters of selfishness if they choose to remain silent? Since one suggestion here is that form may well be more freeing than its opposite, and that form is inseparable from content, it seems unfair to accuse the novel of overschematizing. Clearly Mr. Kundera is playing with the idea of writing a novel whose form itself recalls the 18th century. And the speeding up to farce at the end of the book is inextricably part of the point he is making. But, for all its audacity, wit and sheer brilliance, I miss here the expansive feel of the earlier novels. There are parts of ''Slowness'' that feel uncharacteristically heavy-handed.
Vera says that Milan might be writing a novel without a single serious word, ''A Big Piece of Nonsense.'' But Mr. Kundera's attack on the idea of progress in ''Slowness'' is very much in earnest, echoed in his most recent long essay, ''Testaments Betrayed'': ''History is not necessarily a path climbing upward,'' he wrote, adding that ''the demands of art may be counter to the demands of the moment (of this or that modernity).'' Modernism, he said, was once synonymous with experiment, but since the invention of mass media, it has embraced ''received ideas'' with an enthusiasm for conformity that borders on the totalitarian.
Mr. Kundera comes closer to polemic here than in his other fiction, but he is fiercely defending the ''spirit of complexity'' that the novel embodies. The novel's business, he wrote in ''The Art of the Novel,'' is to say to us, ''Things are not as simple as you think.'' So it seems almost churlish to point out shortcomings in a writer of his spirit of play, breadth of reach and perspicacity -- all admirably at work once again in ''Slowness.'' Much can be forgiven a writer who fearlessly takes on impossible questions like ''What does it mean to be modern?''
In roomy, expansive novels like ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being,'' ''The Book of Laughter and Forgetting'' and, most recently, ''Immortality,'' he uses an astonishing spectrum of instruments to get at meaning. Cutting rapidly from one story to another, interleaving different historical periods, he shifts from anecdote to satire, biography to autobiography, dramatization to historical narrative, ontological meditation to criticism -- given voice by narrators who range from omniscient to personal, including an invented ''I'' whose name happens to be Milan.