Dwight Garner reviews the book "Slowness" by Milan Kundera.

Published May 10, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Milan Kundera's slim new novel, "Slowness," is his first work of fiction written originally in French, and it's a surprise -- a fey, funny, somewhat frazzled novel that lacks the depth of his earlier work but may be his most purely entertaining to date. The narrator of "Slowness" simultaneously relates two quirky love stories -- one is set in the 18th century, one in the 20th -- that take place in the same chateau where he and his wife happen to be staying. Kundera, as always, supplies some fine writing about romance's dark heart ("For a man there is no balm more soothing," the rueful narrator observes, "than the sadness he has caused a woman.")

But this book's truest pleasures lie not in these complicated and underdeveloped tales. Far more enthralling are the narrator's tart and lovely observations about other aspects of life, notably the way society has become too fast and frantic (hence the book's title). "There is a secret bond," Kundera writes, "between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting." Kundera also finds time to discourse amiably on fame and hedonism, and he amusingly skewers the posturing of France's public intellectuals, men he calls "dancers," who rush to perform their kind of "moral judo" in front of television cameras.

"Slowness" isn't major Kundera. But readers will feel a familiar emotional tug when the narrator begins to talk about the importance of reclaiming moral seriousness -- albeit a Kunderian seriousness that's always balanced by "clear and reliable" pleasures: "a gulp of cool water, a look at the sky. . . a caress."

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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