Milan Kundera and the Slow Life of Complexity07-16-2023
Milan Kundera died last week at the age of 94. His major novels include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a thoughtful meditation on Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return of the same. The Kundera novel that most struck me when I read it is Slowness, a true meditative experience, a novel that in its digressions and twists demands we read it slowly and with contemplation. Kundera challenges us to slow down our living, our thinking, our loving. He pushes us to think what our need for the new and the fast, the ever more convenient, does to our humanity. I can only imagine how the world of instant gratification appeared to him. Robin Ashenden writes an intellectual obituary.
Few writers in our time were more committed to the novel or had more idealism about the heights the form could scale. “The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity,” he wrote. “Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think.’” Each was a “paradise of individuals,” a world in which all characters had their reasons. No one could be right or wrong, and all could expect to be understood—anathema to any movement wanting heroes, villains, or easy answers. The complexity of a proper novel, he argued, was part of its appeal. Understanding it took time, effort and dedication. No novel could be read, only reread, till a reader discerned the “web of ironic connections” beneath the surface. Interviewers pressing Kundera on his loyalties found him just as difficult to pin down. Was he on the Left? “I’m a novelist.” On the Right then? “I’m a novelist.” At times his dedication to the form reached an obsessiveness that was either impressive or just plain cranky. He sacked a publisher for changing his colons to full stops forbade stage versions of his books and issued a ban on Kindle editions. To date all must be read in hard copy, or not at all.