Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Elizabethan Treasures @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition transports us back into the Elizabethan Age, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser, of pointy beards and intricate ruffs, to the soundtrack of exquisite lute music.

Lute music was one of the art forms Elizabethan England was recognised for across the Continent, its chief exponent, John Dowland, being poached by the king of Denmark to entertain his court in 1598.

The other art form which flourished in Elizabethan England was the very distinctive one of portrait miniatures, brought to a peak of perfection by two specialists, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French-born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

This exhibition – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver – brings together some 85 masterpieces by both men, making it the first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures to be held in the UK for over 35 years. And what a delight it is!

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

These miniature portraits were termed ‘limnings’ at the time, the intricate detailing of their style deriving, ultimately, from medieval manuscript illumination, but the shape and format clearly owing something to the artwork for coins and medals.

Miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a way of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases or worn around the neck, could be pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Variety

Having studied the literature of the Elizabethan period, and being a fan of lute music, I thought I knew what to expect – 60 or 70 exquisitely painted miniature portraits – but the most surprising thing about the exhibition is the variety of works it includes (miniatures, oil paintings, sketches, coins, manuscripts) and the presentation and context surrounding the portraits, which make it feel much more like an immersion in the broader culture and history of the time.

How to limn

For example, early on in the exhibition there is a display case showing the dozen or more implements which were required to create and paint miniatures, including a mortar and pestle to grind the colour, sea shells to mix the pigment with water or gum, the vellum surfaces the miniatures were painted onto, which were themselves worked flat using a paintbrush-style stick with a smooth tooth (!) at the end to create a supersmooth and even surface.

Above the case is a video showing every stage in the preparation and painting. Very informative.

Manuscript illumination

I was fascinated to be told that the tradition of these miniatures stems directly from manuscript illumination, and from the very finely drawn illustrations often found in later medieval manuscripts. To demonstrate how close the link was the exhibition includes a surviving manuscript, the charter marking the establishment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1583, illustrated by Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Queen Elizabeth

You expect the patrons of these fine artists to have been the richest people in the land, the Queen and her courtiers and there is, indeed, a section devoted to the images of Queen Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard and Oliver. Hilliard, the older man by 18 years, established a monopoly of producing her portraits in miniature. He went on to design seals and illuminated legal documents and medals for the Crown, and became a salaried royal employee in 1599.

To be honest I found the miniatures of Elizabeth on display here less striking than the many full-length portraits of her which exist (and can be seen upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, for example the stunning ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger). But I was struck by one very unexpected picture, an image from 1580 of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute. Do you think she took requests?

Elizabeth I Playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Symbols and secrets

Elizabethan culture was packed with signs and symbols. Images and words had multiple meanings, some public and openly acknowledged, others to do with families, family trees and mottos and coats of arms, others deeply personal and private. The miniatures on display reveal a complicated combination of all three.

So, for example, much of the symbolism surrounding he Queen was straightforward enough, beginning with the Tudor rose symbolising her family lineage and including flowers or jewels which symbolised constancy and virtue. No surprises there.

But what are we to make of an image like this, of a young man, not wearing a ruff, with his doublet casually open, set against a backdrop of roaring flames?

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

The commentary says we can be confident that this symbolises ‘burning love’. Fair enough, but what comes over in the section devoted to symbolism, allegory and secret meanings is just how much we don’t know – just how much of the carefully worked symbolism in these paintings has been lost forever. Even of this image, the commentary is forced to speculate:

The man, dressed only in his undone shirt, holds a jewel. This is perhaps a miniature case containing an image of his love, who was presumably the intended recipient of this portrait.

Perhaps. Presumably. Next to it is a weird image of a young man clasping a hand apparently emerging from a cloud in the sky above.

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Because the Latin inscription written either side of his head translates as ‘Because of Athenian love’ the commentary says that the whole image may imply male homosexual love, which was associated with ancient Greece. May. Despite the fact that sodomy was punishable by death under Elizabethan law, so you’d have thought it was not something you’d leave incriminating evidence about, let alone commission the Queen’s own artist to publicise.

Next to it is a portrait of an unknown man, whose meaning, the commentary records, ‘is now obscure, as the identity of the man and the context of the miniature are lost’.

My point being that encountering a steady succession of images of unknown men or unknown women, with obscure or ambiguous mottos, clasping jewels or flowers which presumably had some meaning for them – but reading time and again how their identities and meanings are now long lost – creates a cumulative sense of mystery and uncertainty. Which is all rather wonderful and charming.

The images are so fantastically precise and perfect – and yet their meanings escape us. In some ways that’s frustrating. But in others it’s rather liberating.

Leicester and Essex

One section brings out the age gap between the two artists by comparing their patrons.

Hilliard b.1547, was patronised by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Elizabeth’s favourite in the early part of her reign. Hilliard’s portrait of Leicester from 1576 was one of my favourite three or four works from the show. What it lacks in strict anatomical accuracy, it more than makes up for in the tremendous sense of character and personality which it conveys. And, the closer you look, the more unbelievable the detailed painting of the great man’s fine white ruff becomes. This object is only about three inches in diameter. The fineness of the detailing is quite staggering.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

By contrast, Oliver, born 18 years after Hilliard, in 1565, was taken up by the great court favourite of the second half of Elizabeth’s career, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. Oliver painted Essex, his friend the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and others in their circle including Southampton’s cousins, the Browne brothers, examples of which are here.

Full-length portraits

Expecting only to see face portraits, I was surprised to discover the exhibition included a whole section devoted to full-length portraits, mostly of a very particular type.

From the late 1580s, both Hilliard and Oliver, like other artists of their day, produced a number of portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or reclining in gardens, or in wilder landscapes. Common poses included the head resting on one hand or the arms crossed. These images would have been read by their contemporaries as depictions of the fashionable ‘complaint’ of Melancholy.

One of the most famous of these (possibly because I’ve seen it on the covers of half a dozen different book editions of Elizabethan sonnets and so forth) is Hilliard’s depiction of a noble youth, posed full length and leaning moodily against a tree.

Young Man Among Roses' by Nicholas Hilliard

Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1588)

Obviously enough, the figure is surrounded by elaborately painted rose bushes alive with thorns. Presumably these represent the thorns and snares of earthly love and so – presumably – would have had a significant personal meaning for the subject and, presumably, commissioner of the work. But then the commentary points out:

The symbolism of the roses, combining beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, and the Latin motto, suggest that its subject is the pain associated with loyalty to someone who has fallen from favour. It has been suggested that the miniature depicts the young Earl of Essex pining for the loss of the queen’s favour, but the context of the poem from which the motto is taken suggests a political affiliation gone wrong.

As so often, we don’t know and so the entire image becomes a prompt for all kinds of pleasantly romantic speculation.

Oliver branches out

If I was slightly surprised by the full-length portraits, I was astonished when the exhibition went on into a section describing the artistic diversity of the younger man, Oliver, who was far more experimental than Hilliard.

For a start, Oliver tackled overtly religious subjects, something Hilliard doesn’t seem to have done, and we are shown a portrait of Christ he did.

Even more surprisingly, the painting is done using stippling i.e. there are no direct lines defining the image, the whole thing is built up solely through the application of brief impressions of paint. The result is that it looks completely unlike anything else in the show, and resembles more the large paintings of contemporary Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio and Federico Barocci. Soft and blurry, unlike any other of the images here.

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Also distinctive to Oliver was sketching and drawing. The exhibition shows two A4-size pencil drawings, one of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Maybe Oliver’s French origins connected him culturally to the European Catholic tradition. There are no religious paintings by Hilliard.

Most surprising of all is this large-scale work, sometimes titled An Allegory, sometimes A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love, by Oliver.

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

As so often we are not completely sure, but experts think that this picture shows an allegory of virtuous and immoral love.

On the left, a soberly dressed group of middle-class women, accompanied by a man, walk through woodland. To the right, richly and colourfully dressed women, probably prostitutes, are gathered around a reclining man. Behind these figures a number of other couples embrace in the woodland, and three different types of hunting are taking place: hawking, boar-hunting and shooting ducks. The miniature displays Oliver’s extraordinary skill, at a relatively early stage in his career, in creating a complex, crowded scene, convincing spatial recession and a sense of movement.

Maybe. Perhaps.

James I

The Stuart royal family

A separate room explores aspects of the change which came over the arts when Elizabeth died in 1601 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of Britain. Unlike Elizabeth, James was married with children and thus the need for accurate portraits was greatly multiplied, and they were of a different type. While Elizabeth had to appear stern and aloof, many of the Stuart portraits feel softer and more intimate, as if to be shared among an extended family circle.

While James continued to patronise ‘our well-beloved servant Nicholas Hillyard’, in 1605 the more artistically adventurous queen consort Anne of Denmark appointed Isaac Oliver her ‘Painter for the art of limning’ for the same salary as Hilliard, £40 a year.

The result is a series of miniatures of king, queen and their three children, Henry, Prince of Wales, Princess Elizabeth and Charles, Duke of York. The exhibition shows us portraits by Hilliard and Oliver of the same royals, allowing us to compare their styles.

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Maybe I was subliminally influenced by the extraordinary ‘softness’ of the Jesus portrait, but I thought I detected a general softening of outlines in these Stuart portraits, especially by Oliver.

The level of detail – the hair styling, ruffs and jewels – is the same as the Elizabethan portraits but – maybe it was just me, but – I thought somehow the overall effect of the images was less sharp and precise and, somehow, more gentle.

One thing which definitely changes is the use of red velvet curtains as a background. The Elizabethan images tended to be set against an abstract colour wash, often blue. Now the royals are standing in front of a luxurious red backdrop implying wealth and grandeur of a more baroque and continental style.

Masques

James’s court saw the rise in popularity of masques, elaborate entertainments expensively staged with generally allegorical or classical subjects, words provided by the poet laureate Ben Jonson and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones. Masques were:

hugely expensive and elaborate court entertainments involving music, dance, poetry and sometimes prose. They were performed by courtiers and members of the royal family. Some took place in the Inns of Court and at courtiers’ homes, but the most spectacular were staged at royal palaces, and involved magnificent costumes and sets.

Some historians I’ve read detect in the popularity of masques among the royal court, a movement away from the sunlit, open-air progressions, tournaments and hunts favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The old queen spent a lot of time travelling round the country, imposing on her aristocratic hosts and asking for large entertainments to be staged, in order to make herself known to her subjects and celebrated as the nexus of national power.

In sharp contrast the masque was a form of entertainment which was held indoors, often at night amid candlelight, and was highly exclusive, restricted to close courtly circles.

Puritans, the more radically Protestant wing of the Church of England, saw in these masques and in their pagan, classical subject matter, a form of blasphemy. The way they were held in private gave rise to dark rumours of immorality, an accusation supported by one of the miniatures here, a portrait of an aristocratic lady dressed as the Roman goddess Flora and wearing a surprisingly diaphanous blouse.

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Take a magnifying glass

A contemporary wrote of these miniatures that ‘the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great … that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’ and he raises an important point.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are very, very small.

Luckily (vitally), the National Portrait Gallery is handing out free magnifying glasses for visitors (you hand them back at the end) and I found I had to combine the magnifying glass and my own glasses to get a really clear, close-up, in-focus view of each picture.

Summary

This is an absorbing and fascinating exhibition. Being forced to look so very closely at the faces and the finely written mottos, and the astonishingly detailed ruffs and jewels and hairdos of so many of these figures, famous or anonymous, from royalty to dashing adventurers like Walter Raleigh, can’t help giving you the feeling you’re getting really close to these people, looking right into their eyes, rubbing right up against the mystery of their images and dress and symbols.

And when you guess at the meanings of the often unknown symbols, and wonder about the purposes of the pictures (as love tokens, gifts to spouses, favours from royalty or aristocratic patrons), you feel that you, too, are becoming part of the dance of meanings which wove in and out of late Elizabethan and early Stuart courtly culture. This is a wonderfully evocative and beautifully staged exhibition.

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

The promotional video


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An Artistic Affair @ the Stanley Spencer Gallery

Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a highly original, not to say quirky, English artist who, after his student days at London’s Slade School of Art, returned to his childhood village of Cookham and spent the rest of his life there painting powerfully ‘naive’ and vivid depictions of his life and surroundings.

Spencer’s sometimes distorted, sometimes cartoonish paintings mingle everyday village life with visionary Christian belief in a peculiar and haunting way: thus his famous painting of Christ preaching to a flock of modern day Cookhamites on the towpath of the River Thames, or his vision of the dead in Cookham churchyard rising from their graves.

Spencer had a number of distinct styles. In one mode he painted unflinching images of himself and the women in his life bare-naked.

In more cartoon mode, Spencer painted a host of images in which the (dressed) human characters are sometimes humorously, sometimes hauntingly distorted.

Stanley was unlucky in love. His first marriage, to Hilda Carline, fell apart when he became infatuated with neighbour Patricia Pearse. Hilda, forced to move out of their Cookham house, began divorce proceedings in 1937. Spencer married Pearse but their relationship quickly faltered. In 1938 Spencer retreated to live by himself live in Southwold, painting The Beatitudes of Live, a series about mis-matched couples. The emotional subject matter – the mismatch of feelings, the challenge of love – is reflected in the gruesome distortion of the figures.

One of the best paintings in the exhibition is a study of Hilda and daughter, Unity, who he went to see around the time she divorced him. Hilda’s face captures an expression of real hurt and upset, and the black eyes of the dolls make a terrifying contrast with the innocence of young Unity’s face.

Daphne Charlton

It was at this rocky period in his emotional life that he encountered Daphne Charlton. Born in 1909 and thus 18 years younger than Stanley, Daphne was already married to George Charlton, who had been her tutor at the Slade School of Art. Stanley went to stay at the Charltons’ home in Hampstead, London, and they began an affair. This wonderful exhibition – An Artistic Affair – at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, depicts and explores their affair, which lasted from 1939 to 1941.

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

Daphne (1940) by Stanley Spencer

(The exhibition features a display case housing the decorative blouse, jaunty black hat and Chinese bowl depicted in his striking 1940 portrait of Daphne.)

The exhibition brings together some 40 paintings, along with important examples of Stanley’s sketchbook. There’s a catalogue, a short guide to the exhibition and a 20-minute video featuring reminiscences of people who knew Stanley and Daphne. It’s worth visiting the show just to see this video which captures the homely innocence of Stanley’s art and the essentially comic aspect of his tangled love life. Daphne emerges as a big woman in every sense, who talked all the time, disagreed with everyone, and had, as she herself explained, ‘absolutely no inhibitions’.

Poor George Charlton had to put up with the fact his wife was having an affair, but it doesn’t seem to have been that unusual for her, and doesn’t seem to have affected his friendship with Stanley. Somehow, more civilised times.

Anyway, the real point of the affair is the works it inspired both Stanley and Daphne herself to produce. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is a converted Methodist chapel consisting of one room with steps up to a balcony level. This is a wonderfully light airy space in which to enjoy the artistic output of their affair.

As you’d expect there are a number of striking portraits of Daphne by Stanley, some portraits of Stanley by Daphne, and a winning self-portrait by poor George.

In July 1939, the trio of artists left for a painting holiday in the rural village of Leonard Stanley, near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Here they stayed at the ‘White Hart Inn’, which now has a plaque in honour of Spencer. There are a number of paintings from the Leonard Stanley period, including a characteristically distorted vision of the two lovers lying on a tiger skin.

While in Leonard Stanley, Stanley bought some blank notebooks and began to make sketches of figures from his complex love life – Hilda, Daphne, Patricia and himself – in a variety of settings, domestic and in public e.g. in shops or village high streets. Daphne features largely throughout and we can see her going about everyday tasks from dressmaking to cutting Stanley’s nails and fitting his shoes on. By setting sketches next to finished works, the show allows us to see how these preliminary sketches were often worked up into paintings.

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

Fetching Shoes, sketch by Stanley Spencer

For example the wool shop, was the first painting to be derived from a Scrapbook drawing. In the picture, the high-spirited, curvaceous Daphne, with a mane of fair hair, is buying wool, assisted by a diminutive Stanley. Spencer’s love of pattern and repeated motifs is seen in the bales of cloth on the shelves, and the convoluted skeins of wool that appear to take on a life of their own.

The Woolshop (1939)

The Woolshop (1939)

One painting, Village Life, depicts Stanley, Daphne and Stanley’s first wife Hilda, in  the same setting. This is a) purely imaginary, the two women never met b) worked up from a notebook sketch which we can compare and contrast with the final painting c) exemplifies Stanley’s timidity – he is smaller than both the female figures.

Many of Spencer’s paintings are an acquired taste. The realistic ones – such as Hilda and Unity or some of his nudes or his brilliant early self portrait (1914) – are readily likable. But at the opposite extreme the more distorted ones, like the Beatitudes of Love, are a stronger flavour and maybe harder to admire. Somewhere in the middle are the numerous works depicting people as stylised tube-like, sloping figures, including the ones which feature in Christ preaching or the Resurrection or countless other earlier depictions of Christ in Cookham.

Standing quite to one side of all these depictions of people, are Stanley’s landscapes. By and large these are much simpler and easier to like. There are several lovely examples in the exhibition, painted during the trio’s stay in Leonard Stanley.

They’re reminiscent of Paul Nash’s country paintings, in their stylised beauty, and maybe distant cousins of Eric Ravilious’s pastoral vision of 1930s England. This was the least expected part of the exhibition and made me wish for a show devoted entirely to Spencer’s landscapes and country paintings, if such a thing were possible.

As the affair with Daphne came to an end in 1941, Stanley found her ebullience and energy increasingly smothering. ‘I can’t work when she’s here,’ he complained.

The exhibition video includes a reminiscence from a lady who, as a young girl, remembers Stanley bursting through the front door and crying to her mother, ‘Hide me, hide me, Daphne’s coming,’ and watching her mother take Stanley through to a back room where they stored apples, hide him, lock the door and be back in the parlour by the time the imperious Daphne arrived. ‘Have you seen Stanley?’ the Amazon demanded. ‘Yes, I saw him going towards the common,’ came the lying reply.

It all feels like an episode of Dad’s Army and bespeaks a fundamental simplicity and innocence. This is a hilarious and beautiful and inspiring exhibition.


Video of the Stanley Spencer Gallery

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