Friday, November 30, 2012


Identity by Milan Kundera
Weight:5.6 oz
Method of Disposal: Leaving in a Book Box in Decatur

I first read this book a little over a decade ago, and I thought it was incredible.  I have since recommended it to numerous people I have loved throughout the years, I have referenced it in discussing life and relationships, and I have thought of it many times.  Is it because I was younger and could remember more about the books I read and, therefore, still remember more about them than books I read now or was this book just that life altering?  I feel like my response to this novel was rare and beloved.  The people I have asked to read Identity and who have then come back to tell me what they think have always reported back saying they like it, but they did not love it.  It did not seem to mean as much to them.

I reread it this morning, and I kept thinking, "I'm going to keep this one.  I will never let it go.  I will put it in a box and announce on my blog that it is the first book I have decided, without a doubt, to keep."  As you can see, I have changed my mind, though the book was still powerful for me.  It is the first 50-75% that I hold so close to my heart.  The last 25% means much less to me and is, ultimately, the reason I know I do not need to hold onto it any longer. 

It is funny, when I describe it to people these days I talk about the dissoultion of a relationship based on tiny misunderstandings that grow into overwhelming issues that cannot be tackled.  I vaguely remembered something about an orgy and the end of a relationship--components I feel I grossly misremembered but are still not powerful to me.

The tiny misunderstandings that grow into entirely different beasts--that is what I am obsessed with.  Watching two people, who clearly love each, other struggle to communicate because of ego, insecurity, flirtation.  Often and almost always when honesty would have solved it all but, by the time the misunderstandings have grown, honesty would no longer work.  And the misunderstandings are so insignificant why would you think it neccessary to communicate them?

I am also compelled by the descriptions of love.  Jean-Marc and Chantal are the main characters, as they are the couple we are zoomed in on.  Early in the book Jean-Marc is running after a woman on the beach that he believes to be Chantal.  Kundera writes:

                       Suddenly he imagines her body crushed by a car, sprawled on the sand, she is bleeding,
                       the car is disappearing down the beach and he sees himself dash towards her.  He is so
                       upset by the image that he really does start shouting Chantal's name, the wind is strong,
                       the beach enormous, and no one can hear his voice, so he can give himself over to that
                       sort of sentimental theatrics and, with tears in his eyes, shout out his anguish for her;
                       his face clenched in a grimace of weeping, for a few seconds he is living with the
                       horror of her death.

                       Then, himself astounded by that curious spasm of hysteria, he saw her, in the distance,
                       still strolling nonchalantly, peaceable, calm, pretty, infinitely touching, and he grinned
                       at the comedy of bereavement he'd just played out, smiled about it with self-reproach,
                       because Chantal's death has been with him ever since he began to love her....(17-18)

I added the emphasis, but I felt it when I was reading.  To love someone is to accept losing them, absolutely if you will love them forever.  You take their death with their life, but you often do not even realize it.  The devil's bargain.  I have been Jean-Marc in this scene.

Just a few pages later, Kundera writes from Jean-Marc's perspective:

                       Mistaking the physical appearance of the beloved for someone else's.  How often that's
                       happened to him!  Always with the same astonishment: does that mean that the
                       difference between her and other women is so minute?  How is is possible that
                       he cannot distinguish the form of the being he loves most, the being he considers to be
                       beyond compare (21)?

What more can I say?!  Such a beautiful, true, disturbing, and common observation.  I feel you, Jean-Marc!

I will admit that poor Chantal is not painted to be much of a self-preservationist, a common thing for women in Kundera books.  When someone starts sending her notes that clearly state that she is being stalked she swoons, instead of panics.  I will say, though, that it works within the world of this novel.

Let me give you one last early excerpt from Chantal's point of view.  She has just had an unsettling experience with a strange man and is finally being reunited with Jean-Marc.

                         When Jean-Marc appeared at the door of the room, she had every intention of being
                         cheerful;she meant to kiss him, but she could not; ever since her stop at the cafe
                         she had been tense, edgy, and so deeply dug into her dark mood that she feared any
                         loving gesture she might try would come across as forced or false.

                         Then Jean-Marc asked her: "What's happened?"  She told him she had slept badly,
                         that she was tired, but she did not manage to convince him and he continued to
                         question her; not knowing how to escape that love inquisition, she thought to tell him
                         something funny; her morning walk and the men transformed into baby-trees returned
                         to mind, and she came across the phrase still lying about in her head like a misplaced
                         object: "Men don't turn to look at me anymore." She resorted to that phrase to avert
                         any serious discussion; she tried to say it as lightly as possible, but to her suprise, her
                         voice was bitter and melancholy.  She could feel the melancholy plastered across her
                         face and knew, instantly, that it would be misinterpreted (22-23).

I have been Jean-Marc AND Chantal.  Haven't you?  How quickly both of their moods shift from page 1 to page 23, while they are looking for each other.  They are so in love and happy but, by the time they are together, they cannot function as a coordinated unit.  I love it!  I love it because it is all I have ever known love to be.

Okay, I could keep quoting, ranting, and raving, but I won't.  I still recommend this book.  If for no other reason than the first 100 pages, but it is well worth finishing.

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