Milan Kundera’s new novel, Identity, written in French and marked at its end as “completed in France, Autumn 1996,” reads like a modest commentary on a famous page in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Swann’s love for Odette de Crécy, entering its unhappiest phase, is described as an illness, in which physical desire, and even Odette’s person, play only a small part. Swann can scarcely recognize her in a photograph, can’t connect her face with his pain—“as though suddenly we were to be shown a detached, externalized portrait of one of our own maladies, and we found it bore no resemblance to what we are suffering.” The switch from Swann to us is striking; our identification with his condition is swiftly taken for granted. Proust’s narrator then, even more strikingly, relates love and death, not, he says, because of any of the “so vague” resemblances which are “always” discussed, but because both make us interrogate further, interroger plus avant, “the mystery of personality.” Who is it we love, and who are we, in love or out of it?
There are really only two characters in Identity, although to call them “characters” is pushing it a bit. Chantal and Jean-Marc are lovers, have been for years. They are happy, have no thought of separating, but then certain thoughts disturb their relationship, as if thoughts were worse than infidelity, more dangerous than distance or violence. These thoughts are what matter in Chantal and Jean-Marc, so that everything else about them, their jobs, their bodies, their past lives, their friends, their apartment, their styles of speech or dress, is merely sketched in, or not even sketched in.
The first words of the book are: “A hotel in a small town on the Normandy coast, which they found in a guidebook.” No name except that of the region, no evocation; not so much as a main verb to take the sentence beyond the effect of notation. Chantal has been married, and has had a child, who died, but that’s all the boy is: a child who died, his death merely the premise for her current freedom. “Child,” Kundera writes: “an existence without a biography,” but that wouldn’t distinguish a child from anyone else in this book. Chantal’s dead child is what allows her to despise the world, because “it’s impossible to have a child and despise the world as it is, because that’s the world we’ve put the child into.” Translation: the novelist has given her this child and taken it away again in order to make this point about the world.
It would be absurd to ask for documentary realism of Kundera, who specializes in erratic and edgy mentalities; but the people in this novel do seem to be very skimpily and casually imagined, unlike the characters in most of his earlier works, who are solidly and quirkily alive among abstractions, and whose very ideas become flesh. Here the …