Communism in eastern Europe created a unique literary-philosophical tradition. Lesley Chamberlain surveys this tradition both before and after the collapse of communism. She prefers Ivan Klima to Milan Kundera, but likes Christa Wolf best of allby Lesley Chamberlain / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Two cheers for communism. It gave us some wonderful books. What now? The Czech scientist and poet Miroslav Holub suggests, in the latest British Council volume of New Writing, that things aren’t all bad in the Czech Republic. That’s a characteristically superior view. But the question is why the books written under communism were so good, and stand the test of rereading out of season.
Milan Kundera can’t be ignored, because he has acquired such a reputation worldwide. But he has always seemed restless about that reputation, barely fictionalising bits of his biography to make a fantastic statement about all our lives. His essays about the novel endorse his concern with laughter and the body as a grand tradition from Cervantes and Rabelais. Faber has published some of them in Testaments Betrayed. It is a volume of mixed quality, with the inevitable Czech writer’s essay on Kafka. The literary theory looks second-hand, the literary history self-serving. We should judge him instead on his new novel, Slowness, his first for five years and the first written in French.
Ultra-short and barely a novel, Slowness seems to tell us where a disappointed Kundera (who emigrated to France over 20 years ago) has arrived. The speed-addicted west has already forgotten the fuss it made over communism and has already rendered its dissident heroes redundant. I was reading this confection with difficulty when I heard a child screaming in the street. That says it all. Slowness is a howl of impotence. Its misery is divided among three figures, one of them Kundera by name, another a French alter ego called Vincent, whose erotic life is as clumsy as his intellectual career, and a third, a Czech scientist restored to his profession after 20 years’ manual work. The usual Kunderian psycho-sexual climate, sadistic and unpleasant, predominates, until Vincent fails to copulate beside the hotel pool. Then Kundera’s universe collapses. The Great Chain of Couplings falls mercifully slack. Perhaps one is supposed to laugh, though I would not wish this ineffective, squirming French life on anyone.