IdentityClick & Buy: Identity

Novel, written 1996, published 1997, 166 pages, translated into English by Linda Asher..

‘Identity': Nothing Is as It Seems, but Who Can Be Sure  (by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, 7/5/1998)

Viewed superficially, the action of Milan Kundera's compact new novel, "Identity," is simple, almost farce-like. While vacationing at a hotel on the Normandy coast, Chantal, who has divorced her husband after the death of their 5-year-old child, is amused to note how all the men she sees "have daddified themselves." She reflects, "They aren't fathers, they're just daddies, which means: fathers without a father's authority." She's sure that if she tried to seduce one, he would hiss, "Leave me alone, I'm busy."

When she is joined at the hotel by her lover, Jean-Marc, who is four years younger, she complains to him half-jokingly, "Men don't turn to look at me anymore." Back at their Paris apartment, Jean-Marc, who has taken Chantal's complaint seriously, decides that because she is obviously feeling older, "what she needs is not a loving gaze but a flood of alien, crude, lustful looks settling on her with no good will, no discrimination, no tenderness or politeness." So he begins to send her anonymous letters describing himself as someone spying on her and finding her "beautiful, very beautiful."

Although the letters at first serve to inflame the couple's lovemaking, ultimately they backfire. Through a complex process, Chantal and Jean-Marc suffer what might be called the shameful objectification that Kundera has described elsewhere as a threat to all of us in the intrusive modern era. As a result, the two become estranged from each other, losing their identities as lovers.

Of course the novel is far richer than this summary suggests. The main action is repeated in miniature throughout, almost as if the story were constructed of modules. For instance, while Chantal waits for Jean-Marc to join her at the Normandy resort, she overhears two waitresses discussing a popular television program about people who have mysteriously disappeared called "Out of Sight," and she imagines the horror of losing Jean-Marc "that way someday." And several times in illogically different settings, she encounters a young tattooed man who seems to threaten her sexually.

The novel is full of expressions of the paradoxical feelings so typical of Kundera's longer, more expansive novels like "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Immortality." For instance, one day while the two of them are eating lunch, Chantal is overcome by "a feeling of unbearable nostalgia for Jean-Marc." How could this happen in his presence? It can "if you glimpse a future where the beloved is no more; if the beloved's death is, invisibly, already present." At this moment, she thinks of her dead child and is flooded with a wave of happiness, because it is his death that has made her presence at Jean-Marc's side "absolute." She does not disclose this reaction to Jean-Marc because she fears "he would see her as a monster."

"Identity" contains its share of Kundera lectures on the modern era. "How is friendship born?" Jean-Marc asks Chantal. "Certainly as an alliance against adversity," he continues. But "maybe there's no longer a vital need for such an alliance."

"There will always be enemies," rejoins Chantal.

"Yes, but they're invisible and anonymous. Bureaucracies, laws," responds Jean-Marc. "Friendship can no longer be proved by some exploit." He concludes, "We go through our lives without great perils, but also without friendship."

And as it progresses, the novel's action grows more and more surreal. The author even intervenes at the end, suggesting in his own voice that from a certain indeterminable point onward in the action, Chantal and Jean-Marc may simply be dreaming.

Yet despite all these earmarks of the typical Kundera novel, "Identity" remains the most compact and integrated of his recent fictions. In its brevity and unity of plot it surpasses even his previous book, "Slowness," which was his first to be written in French instead of Czech and was shorter by half than his best-known works.

Does this mean that he has renounced the polyphonic novel with scrambled narrative and multiple authorial voices that has typified his major work? Or is "Identity" going one step further than "Slowness," where he seemed to be suggesting that form is both more liberating than its opposite and finally inseparable from content?

One clue is that by writing in a form that goes against one's expectations, Kundera has forced the reader to take nothing at face value, but instead to see as tricks what in other writers' works one might view as the straightforward elements of a story. As a result, the meaning of "Identity" keeps collapsing into its opposite like an optical illusion that can be seen two different ways.

The effect is like a film clip that is shown at the ad agency where Chantal works. "On the screen is a behind in a horizontal position, good-looking, sexy, in close-up. A hand is caressing it tenderly, enjoying the skin of this naked, compliant body. Then the camera pulls back and we see the body entire, lying on a small bed: it is a baby, with its mother leaning over it. In the next sequence she lifts him up and her parted lips kiss the lax, wet, wide-open mouth of the nursling. At that instant the camera draws in, and the same kiss, by itself, in close-up, suddenly becomes a sensual love kiss." As with the lovers' perceptions of each other in this arresting, slightly frightening story of ideas in opposition, everything depends on a slippery notion of identity that can change from one paragraph to the next.


The Object of My Obsession (by Robert Grudin, 17/5/1998)

f it ever occurred to you that you might brighten your domestic partner's life by sending her (or him) anonymous love letters, you probably decided, on further consideration, that it wasn't really such a good idea. In fact, given the predictable consequences, it's a lose-lose proposition. Your partner will either recognize you as the author and remand you to psychiatric care -- or take the letters seriously, which is a whole lot worse. For then you will have initiated a chain of disturbing events that you can never effectively complete.

Yet it is precisely in such a fix that Jean-Marc, the naive hero of Milan Kundera's latest novel, ''Identity,'' finds himself. He has written passionate notes to his longtime lover, Chantal, in the belief that they will ease what he takes to be a temporary emotional upset. Think again, Jean-Marc. Chantal is such a mental mess, so fragile a tissue of phobia, compulsion, mistrust and panic, that the letters drive her to the edge. The lovers quarrel and split up and then separately board (or do they?) the same train from Paris to London.

The ''or do they?'' is caused by the salient structural characteristic of Kundera's flawed but insightful novel. I'm afraid it's not a very attractive feature. Late in the narrative, Kundera (best known for his novel ''The Unbearable Lightness of Being'') diverges from what had been a well-paced play-by-play narrative into a sick fantasy that seems to involve both lovers. Worse yet, in the penultimate chapter he steps into first-person discourse and throws in the towel:

''And I ask myself: who was dreaming? Who dreamed this story? Who imagined it? She? He? Both of them? Each one for the other? And starting when did their real life change into this treacherous fantasy? When the train drove down under the Channel? . . . When Jean-Marc sent her the first letter? But did he really send those letters? Or did he only imagine writing them? At what exact moment did the real turn into the unreal, reality into reverie? Where was the border? Where is the border?''

Exactly like his hero, Kundera has begun a process that he cannot complete. This is so embarrassing a gaffe, so egregious a cop-out, that the reader must be warned. Kundera has broken the implicit contract, simple but severe, between writer and reader: the promise of an ending. We can't ignore this promise or scoff at it as being merely ''plot.'' Characters in good fiction create a justice that they must, in turn, suffer. It's not until they suffer this justice that they fairly identify themselves as characters. The completion of plot is thus the presentation of character. Kundera has aborted this presentation and, in effect, killed his own fiction.

As the victim lies sprawled on the coffee table, we must take on the role of detectives and ask who or what brought it to its untimely end. Has ''being'' grown so unbearably light that Kundera can't even write about it anymore? Or, rather, unbearably heavy? The fatal difficulty seems to lie in the character of Chantal, with whom Kundera seems as fascinated as Jean-Marc. As her creator, he allows himself to be drawn into her psychological vortex, her center of disturbance. There is only illness here -- no spark of consciousness or glimmer of redemption. Though his creation, Chantal has seized dominance and backed her author into a corner. He cannot save her, yet lacks the toughness to destroy her.

''Identity'' has other foibles, which include lengthy dyspeptic philosophical maunderings after the French fashion (the novel, translated by Linda Asher, was written in French) and excessive attention to phobias, notably an aversion to saliva. But, unlike its heroine, the book contains ample material for redemption: analyses so thoughtful that they justify a reading. These analyses concern the book's declared subject: human identity. Kundera lucidly discloses the psychological obsessions of the two lovers and shows how these obsessions lead to repeated miscommunications between them. Jean-Marc projects an idealized identity onto Chantal and is deflated when his projections are contradicted by simple reality. Chantal's fear of men is so overwhelming that she sees Jean-Marc, the only man who wants to save her, as a figure of oppression. Their relationship fails because each lover has twisted the other into a subjective and unmanageable identity.

PARALLEL to these destructive projections, and in part caused by them, is a curtain of shame and secrecy that prevents Chantal and Jean-Marc from opening up to each other about the things that concern them most powerfully. Jean-Marc muses that ''what people keep secret is the most common, the most ordinary, the most prevalent thing, the same thing everybody has: the body and its needs.'' But the novel implies something more profound: that feelings native to all of us -- like insecurity, loneliness and anxiety -- are routinely and often disastrously kept from each other by lovers or spouses. Because they cannot reveal their humanity, Jean-Marc and Chantal are sapped of character and deprived of love. Kundera wisely shows that it is by concealing our communality, our community, that we lose individual identity.




[The Joke]
[Laughable Loves]
[Life is Elsewhere]
[The Farewell Waltz]
[The Book of Laughter and Forgetting]
[The Unbearable Lightness of Being]


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