When I reviewed (and reviewed enthusiastically) Immortality by Milan Kundera earlier in the year, I suggested that I wouldn’t read another for a while. Much as I admired and liked the novel (if a novel it can be called), I was left a little exhausted, and fancied a five year break before I returned to Kundera…
…but then I discovered that he wrote short books too! And you know how I love a short book. Identity has enormous font and wide margins too… But, before you think me a complete imbecile, this is the jacket blurb which persuaded me:
Sometimes – perhaps only for an instant – we fail to recognise a companion. When this happens to lovers, the effect is acute: for a moment the identity of the loved one ceases to exist, and we come to doubt our own.Doesn’t that sound an intriguing starting point for a novel?
Identity isn’t as postmodern as Immortality (those titles are so similar, I’m bound to get them mixed up at some point in this blog post… hopefully we’re on the same page so far). While Immortality really seemed to reinvent the novel structure, Kundera sticks more closely to a conventional form with Identity, despite being published eight years later (1998, compared to Immortality’s 1990). There is the odd dabble in unusual images and abstract thought (cue quotation…)
Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, friends.
…but, in amongst Kundera’s very individual – and to my mind, very good – writing style, there is a surprisingly traditional romance. But very nuanced, and very subtle.
He reflected that she was his sole emotional link to the world. People talk to him about prisoners, about the persecuted, about the hungry? He knows the only was he feels personally, painfully touched by their misfortune: he imagines Chantal in their place. People tell him about women raped in some civil war? He sees Chantal there, raped. She and she alone releases him from his apathy. Only through her can he feel compassion.
I think that’s quite a brilliant way to describe the closeness of a relationship, romantic or otherwise. Chantal and Jean-Marc are the couple in question – and it is Chantal whom Jean-Marc fails to recognise (or, rather, he thinks somebody else is her, until he gets closer to them). She, in turn, thinks that men have stopped finding her attractive – which shakes the identity she has formed for herself. And so it is with a mixture of pleasure and displeasure that she receives a letter saying that someone is watching her. These letters grow more complimentary, and instead of throwing them away, she keeps the letters in her underwear drawer – and starts trying to work out who is sending them.
Such is the plot – but Kundera weaves far more around this simple premise. All sorts of interesting musings about a myriad of topics, and (like Immortality) exceptional insight into the interaction of people, with all the subtlety and complexity of real emotions. How he does it is beyond me…
And then the narrative does get a bit more postmodern, dabbling between fantasy and reality without telling you quite where the line is. It feels just a little bit thrown in, and I’d have liked it to be a bit more developed, but it’s also an interesting touch… and obviously done because Kundera can’t help himself, rather than for any big effect.
Second Kundera, and I’m still very impressed – I still admire him more than I love him (and isn’t there sometimes a big difference!) but that isn’t to say reading him is a struggle, because it isn’t. Just – as, indeed, I finished my last Kundera review – not one to curl up with in front of the fire. And no, that delightfully bizarre cover never makes sense.