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 flesh itself is an idea, if that. The novel’s abrupt dips into Chantal’s mental idiom—“Ah, how she hated that, eating alone!”—seem blandly conventional, and Kundera wheels out clichés as if they were a form of worldly (masculine) wisdom: “Suddenly it is the immemorial situation of a woman being chased down by a man,” “this immemorial action of women hiding a letter among their undergarments.” The imagery, too, comes from well-worn general stock: “I was cold as an ice cube”; “She is icy with honor.” Is this the effect of Kundera’s no longer writing in Czech? His previous, similarly very thin novel, Slowness, was also written directly in French. The language may be one answer, and the French isn’t any fresher than the English translation, but I think rather that Kundera is deliberately looking for bareness and the plain style and has gone too far; or that he overestimates the interest of what’s left.
Chantal’s disturbing thought occurs on the beach in that Normandy town. All the men she sees are carrying children or pushing strollers, and she decides that “men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority.” She wonders what would happen if she made a pass at one of these daddies. Would the man even be able to turn around? Then she thinks, “I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.” She is amused by this idea at first, but when she tells Jean-Marc about it she can’t get the tone right. “She tried to say it as lightly as possible, but to her surprise, her voice was bitter and melancholy.”
Jean-Marc hears the melancholy and feels excluded—why does she need other men to turn to look at her?—but he also has had his own disturbing thought. Arriving in the town after Chantal and looking for her on the beach after she has returned to the hotel, he momentarily mistakes another woman for her. This other person is “old, ugly, pathetically other.” How could this happen? “How is it possible that he cannot distinguish the form of the being he loves most, the being he considers to be beyond compare?” At this point the Proustian echoes, intended or not, seem particularly clamorous, and Kundera executes a number of variations on this theme. When Jean-Marc catches up with Chantal at the hotel, she doesn’t look like herself any more: “Her face is old, her glance strangely harsh. As if the woman he had been waving at on the beach must, now and forevermore, replace the one he loves. As if he must be punished for his inability to recognize her.” Chantal is changed twice, so to speak: once by her own experience on the beach, and once by Jean-Marc’s.
A few pages later Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears with “an alien and disagreeable face. Yet it is not someone different, it is Chantal, his Chantal, he has no doubt of that, but his Chantal with a stranger’s face, and this is horrifying, this is unbearably horrifying.” Even awake, Jean-Marc finds Chantal’s social self different from the person he loves, and his terror, in his bad moments, is not that he will lose Chantal but that he will no longer be able to distinguish her from other women, “that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.” The self-directed phrasing is important. Just as Chantal is free to despise the world as soon as her child is gone, Jean-Marc despises everything and everyone except Chantal. A lovely couple. Chantal is Jean-Marc’s “sole emotional link to the world…. She and she alone releases him from his apathy. Only through her can he feel compassion.” His love for her is his love of his ability to love her, a fragile form of self-congratulation.
Neither of the lovers is very secure in the self they prefer to the world. Troubled by Chantal’s need to feel looked at, Jean-Marc starts to write her anonymous admiring letters. She is touched and aroused by them, keeps them and hides them. When she realizes, by a few careful acts of deduction, that Jean-Marc is writing them, she thinks he is trying to trick her and get rid of her. He can’t understand why she is so upset by what he meant as a gesture of kindness, and their mutual misunderstanding sends Chantal off to London, with Jean-Marc trailing miserably after her. Certain sudden shifts of scenery and oddly recurring characters now suggest we have entered a realm of fantasy or hallucination, where Chantal gets trapped in an orgy and thinks she may be dead, and where Jean-Marc can trace her but can’t reach her. The end of the novel finds the lovers back together again, anxiously reassuring each other about their presence.
Just before this Kundera has teased us with speculations: “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?” These questions are less interesting than the one they seem to have displaced: Why would love, even happy love, be so prone to doubt and anxiety; what mysteries of personality have come unraveled here?
Letters and separation also figure significantly in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and A Lover’s Almanac; and John Bayley’s The Red Hat is, among many other things, a delicate meditation on the rewriting of love. The letters are anonymous and at the heart of Vargas Llosa’s novel; signed but not immediately opened in Maureen Howard’s book. In The Red Hat a timid and languid Englishman almost falls in love on reading a young woman’s letter to a friend and writes his own modest, bewildered companion piece. With all four of these novels in mind we might want to add a line to Proust’s parallel, and say that not only love and death but also love and writing keep turning up questions about personality. In writing as in love we see, if not our maladies, at least what may be a piece of ourselves externalized and independent, living a life of its own in the world. This other self is ours, but not recognized. Or it is recognized, but not our self. You don’t have to be a graphologist to get caught up in this riddle; and of course in writing about love the whole spectacle is dizzily doubled.
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto picks up precisely where Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother (1988) left off, although the new work is much more densely elaborated. In the earlier novel the angelic stepson, Fonchito, all golden ringlets and blue eyes, short trousers and school uniform—we are told he has recently taken his first Communion—seduces or is seduced by his beautiful stepmother Doña Lucrecia. He is young enough to be repeatedly called a child and to present a perfect picture of sexual innocence; old enough to enjoy sleeping with his stepmother and, with seeming calculation, to let his father know of the (recurring) event. The boy’s father, Don Rigoberto, throws the wife out, which may be what the boy wanted all along.
In the new novel the boy is living with his father but secretly visits his stepmother after school each day. There are no further sexual misdemeanors on these occasions, but there is much suggestive talk, often focused on the drawings and paintings and life of Egon Schiele, who has become a passion with the boy. When the married couple are finally reunited, after a year of living apart, Lucrecia confesses that her abstinence had nothing to do with virtue. “I didn’t go to bed with him, but wait. Not because of any virtue in me, but because of him. If he had asked, if he had made the slightest suggestion, I would have done it. With the greatest of pleasure, Rigoberto.” These are hard words for a husband to hear, but perhaps not as hard for Don Rigoberto as for some, since he has made a nightly career out of mental voyeurism.