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Identity: A Novel Hardcover – April 21, 1998

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Editorial Reviews Review

The reader sits down to dinner with Chantal, who is waiting for her lover, Jean-Marc, in a seaside hotel. While waiting to be served, she overhears two waitresses discuss the unexplained disappearance of a family man. This blatant foreshadowing posits the central question of Identity: what we think we know about our intimates is predicated on projection, primal yearnings, and the deep denial of life's impermanence. Identity reads like a musical exercise; its playing out of themes is reminiscent of a fugue. An image dropped into the narrative will be revisited from a different vantage point, tossed back and forth between the lovers; out of it will be teased every possible meaning. The 51 sparse, tiny chapters reinforce the fuguelike feel.

The plot is simple: Jean-Marc arrives at the hotel; Chantal is out walking. Near misses and mistaken identities characterize his frantic search for her, offering Kundera the opportunity to philosophize on the unknowability of the "other." They reunite; Chantal blurts out the distressing thought that's plagued her day: "Men don't turn to look at me anymore." This launches the protagonists into sketchy flashbacks, stilted dialogues, and interior monologues, all loosely bound by their embarkation on an erotic journey.

Key bits from the characters' pasts become signature refrains. Chantal, for example, has buried a son, who died at the age of 5. Strands such as this are dropped lightly in the narrative, to be pulled through later chapters like a needle with different colored threads. Later, for example, the boy's death will trigger her unpleasant realization--that it was, in the end, a "dreadful gift." Children, she thinks, keep us hopeful in the world, because "it's impossible to have a child and despise the world as it is; that's the world we've put the child into." Thus, her child's death has set her free to live out her genuine disdain of the world. Although the illogical extremes of Kundera's thought can be wildly dissonant and wondrously shocking, this reiterative device of Identity lacks energy. There's no sense of discovery about these characters. They remain flat; the style effects one like an Ingmar Bergman film when one is in the mood for Sam Peckinpah.

As if in serendipitous response to her pain in getting older, Chantal receives an anonymous "love" note. More notes follow. Will they prove Jean-Marc's attempt to sweeten her sad disclosure? Her sexual awakening begins to blur the boundaries of what's real. All well and good, but somewhere along the line, Kundera concludes that Chantal is weak because she's older. Age, we are asked to believe, becomes a wedge between the lovers, even though Chantal is only a few years older than Jean-Marc, who is himself only 42. And in the exploration of her sexuality on the wax and wane, Kundera succumbs to cliché: she is consumed too often by too many flames, and red is all used up as a symbol of violent passion. On the subject of male and female desire, Kundera is incomparably funny, and the novel sports some nervy images--masturbating fetuses; our human community joined in a sea of saliva; the ubiquity of spying eyes, harvesting information for profit; the human gaze itself, a marvel, jaggedly interrupted by the mechanical action of the blink. Kundera betrays a witty revulsion for the values and mores of the late 20th century.

But with sentences such as, "This is the real and the only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past, which, without the eternal blah-blah of memories between pals, would long ago have disappeared," the reading experience reduces to an annoyance. Perhaps this is the fault of the translator attempting a breezy, colloquial tone. But it's sloppy and careless. Still the novel's an entertainment, a good companion. Reading it is like passing an afternoon in a sidewalk café, catching up with an old friend, say, with whom one has shared youthful cynicism and diatribes against the ignominies of human behavior. One will look back on such an afternoon and remember too many Galloises smoked, too many cups of coffee, moments of intense engagement that fell, alas, into the indulgence of a "retro" ennui.

From Publishers Weekly

In his second novel written in French (after Slowness), Czech-born novelist Kundera employs spare prose in the service of a meditation on the precarious nature of the human sense of self. Recently divorced ad executive Chantal, on a vacation with her younger boyfriend, Jean-Marc, believes that she is too old to be considered attractive by other men. For Chantal, identity is defined by the perceptions of strangers. Her dreams, to the extent that they impose a "leveling contemporaneity of everything a person has ever experienced," disturb Chantal. They remind her that she has a past, when she feels that she exists only in the present, that she is who she is only at any given moment. When she returns from her vacation, she begins to receive letters from an anonymous admirer. She suspects each new man she encounters to be the mysterious scribe and fantasizes how each might perceive her. Gradually, these letters, along with a few dreams, affect how Chantal views herself and her relationship with Jean-Marc, until her feelings and identity become unrecognizable both to her lover and to herself. At the end of the book, the unnamed narrator asks: "At what exact moment did the real turn into the unreal, reality into reverie? Where was the border? Where is the border?" Kundera has long explored themes of impermanence and fluctuating identity?often to memorable effect, particularly in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and even in the more recent Immortality. His new novel lacks a certain vitality, however, perhaps because, torn from any historical or political context, Kundera's metaphysical musings aren't very engaging, or perhaps because the book lacks the ironic edge that Kundera's admirers have come to expect.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (April 21, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060175648
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060175641
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,179,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Milan Kundera, born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, was a student when the Czech Communist regime was established in 1948, and later worked as a labourer, jazz musician and professor at the Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Prague. After the Russian invasion in August 1968, his books were proscribed. In 1975, he and his wife settled in France, and in 1981, he became a French citizen. He is the author of the novels The Joke, Life is Elsewhere, Farewell Waltz, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Immortality, and of the short-story collection Laughable Loves - all originally in Czech. His most recent novels, Slowness, Identity and Ignorance, as well as his non-fiction works The Art of the Novel and Testaments Betrayed, were originally written in French.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Livia J Kent on June 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Although Milan Kundera's work, Identity, was a New York Times notable book, critics internationally have accused him of breaking a so-called reader-writer contract in which the completion of plot is meant to finish the presentation of character. This type of criticism does not befit a renowned writer who convinced the world years ago that the duty of a novelist, at least in his own case, was to teach readers to comprehend life as a question rather than as an answer and to understand fiction as an idea rather than a story. In his heyday people enjoyed the challenge of wading through his lengthy digressions on the evolution of the meaning of words, the way he interrupts his narrative time and time again to return to the discussion of certain themes such as "lightness" and "heaviness" in his most famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
But just as heaviness, "which pins us to the ground but is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment," is often a gift, so too is the weight of Kundera's work, even in his novel, Identity. Besides the fact Identity was originally written in French as opposed to Kundera's first language, Czech in which he wrote his previous works, there is no discrepancy in talent between this book and his earlier, more popular, one. Critics, however, are asking such questions as "has `being' grown so unbearably light that Kundera can't even write about it anymore." My answer is "No." In Identity, Kundera courageously invites his readers to weigh the notion of human identity and what it means both in a community and in one-on-one romantic relationship. This novel portrays one couple-Chantal, who has recently divorced her husband after the death of her five year-old child, and Jean-Marc.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By matthew wilson on June 9, 2001
Format: Paperback
I think that Kundera is an amazing writer. His understanding 0f the human spirit and the human penchance for fallacy is unparalled. The Unbearable lightness of being changed the way i viewed relationships and myself- Indentity has made me momentarily relieved that I am not in a relationship. Simply written yet intricately developed, 'Identity' causes us to hold a mirror up to our face and causes us to question how we really view friendship, love and companionship. Are these inherently selfish acts and does love also breed dependency and virtual madness? The book is claustrophobic and uncomfortable in parts, bringing the reader into the discomfort and rawness of relationships, presenting the obessive side of love affairs as linear expectations rather than as disruptive anomalies. The characters of Chantal and jean Marc elicit both pity and disgust, yet at the end they remain in each others arms despite the uncertainties and misdirected acts of their association. Whether or not the relationship survives in the future because of their love for being with each other or their fear of being apart is a question that the author allows the reader to answer in his/her mind.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Carey on January 26, 2005
Format: Paperback
I liked this book for its intelligence and for its simplicity of structure. I didn't like that I found it, by the end, anti-climactic -- I felt no revelation about identity, lack of identity, meaning or lack of meaning with respect to identity. The book's intelligence was compelling enough to make it work for me, as was its plot. Until the final chapters. Simplicity, brevity and internal consistency turned from deft continuity to a scattered unrealism that was both at odds with the book's tenor and ultimately led not to knowing, not to not-knowing, nor to anything fully realized. However, because of its smart writing and compelling theme, I am genuinely happy to have read it. Some prose is beautiful and interesting enough to be a pleasure in itself and "Identity," for me, is an example of such prose. In that sense: if the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, then it did fulfill. Ironically or not, then, "Identity" itself lacks an ultimate critical identity.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Allen Loibner-Waitkus on March 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
The great thing about Kundera novels is that they say things. This is a big problem with a lot of novelists writing today--they aren't saying anything. Plot takes a backseat to what Kudera is saying, though the plot isn't bad. It is difficult to peel back the layers of Kundera's point, but--as the title shows--he's commenting on identity: the identity we create for ourselves and the identity we create for others in our own mind. The novel raises more questions than it answers, but that's the sign of a great novel. Isn't it?
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
Czech-born Milan Kundera now lives in Paris and writes in French. His characters, not unnaturally, live there as well. Unlike their creator, however, they are not immigrants. Their Frenchness is total. They speak like rive gauche intellectuals and could easily be the protagonists of one of Eric Rohmer's Contes moraux.
Their behavior, however, sometimes suggests that they have lived lives elsewhere. For the characters in Identity, one of the best of Kundera's many novels, seem to echo a couple portrayed in one of his early short stories, one called "The Hitchhiking Game," and written in Czech while Kundera was still living in Brno.
In "The Hitchhiking Game," a young couple becomes engrossed in a case of lost-and-found identity while playing a flirtatious game. In the end, the girl cries out, "I am me, I am me, I am me." And the reader is left to wonder just who "me" might really be.
Chantal, the female protagonist of Identity is the above-mentioned girl's soul sister. Discomfited by blushing during adolescence, Chantal is now at an age where she is facing menopause, and the blushes have returned to haunt her, this time in the form of hot flushes. Hot flushes, however, are the least of Chantal's worries.
When she becomes fearful that men are no longing pining for her from afar, her lover, Jean-Marc begins to send her a series of unsigned love letters. This ludicrous gesture, although well-intentioned, leads to an inevitable crisis as Jean-Marc finds himself the engineer of his own undoing.
In Jean-Marc's mind, Chantal no longer makes love to him, but to that unknown other, Jean-Marc's own alter ego, his other self. For her part, Chantal does, indeed, try to conjure up, at crucial moments, that hidden admirer...
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