So many various and varied roads led me to read What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt this week.
Firstly, she is one of my dear friend’s favourite writers (along with Paul Auster). I have resisted for several years now for no particular reason. However, Hustvedt’s books are always there, lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for me to pay them attention.
In the past few weeks I have read three truly amazing, but very different books that have a connection to either New York City, art, post-modernism, love or loss – The Museum of Modern Love, Exit West and Insomniac City.
Last week, as I was unpacking boxes at work, the red tinted edges of Sceptre’s 30th anniversary special edition of What I Loved grabbed my attention. I flicked open the pages randomly and landed on the top of page 103 and read,
Not once in all my years of marriage had I asked myself whether I loved Erica. For about a year after we met, I had been thoroughly unhinged by her. My heart had pounded. My nerves had tensed with longing until I could almost here them buzz. My appetite had vanished, and I had withdrawal symptoms when I wasn’t with her.
I was hooked.
This brief passage reached out to me and insisted I read the rest of it now. It felt real and it felt urgent. It was also set in NYC and featured an artist as one of the main characters.
I was in!
Hustvedt divided the book into three acts. The first act was the getting to know you section that occasionally dragged a little.
Leo is our narrator and protagonist. We become intimately connected to his wife Erica, their friends, Bill, Violet and Lucille and the children Matthew and Mark. Bill is an artist – his work fascinates Leo, which is what brings them altogether.
I found the descriptions of Bill’s art work overly long and, well, tedious, at times, although I gradually realised that they gave us many psychological insights into Bill’s character as well as allowing Hudsvedt many opportunities to explore her ideas about perception and seeing and interpretation.
Early on Leo remarks that one of Bill’s paintings reminds him of Jan Steen’s woman at her morning toilet which he saw at the Rijksmuseum. Bill acknowledges the connection and says,
I’m not interested in nudes. They’re too arty, but I’m really interested in skin.
They note how you can see the imprint in the woman’s skin made by the string that keeps the top of the sock up. Hustvedt plays with the notion of what is skin deep and how what we do (and think) impacts on our bodies. Impressions, influences and surface details versus intent, consciousness and internal meaning also get explored throughout the book.
Naturally I had to source this painting to see it for myself.
|Woman at her Toilet, Jan Havickszoon Steen, 1655 – 1660|
Curiously Steen seems to have painted this idea twice. The painting above is the one that hangs in the Rijksmuseum. The one below is part of the Royal Collection Trust.
I now wonder if this example of duality was a deliberate choice by Hustvedt or merely happy coincidence.
|A Woman at her Toilet 1663 Jan Steen|
Act two reveals why the title is written in the past tense. The pace and tension within the story also picks up from here. If you have been struggling with the first chapter, I urge you to wait until the second to make up your mind about whether to continue or not.
I loved the vague sense of foreboding and dread that simmered under the surface during the final two acts. Love, grief, hope, disappointment, trust, despair, loyalty and forgiveness are just some of the heavy emotions that swirl around our characters. It was an emotional roller coaster ride that I couldn’t, and didn’t want to get off.
I’m always fascinated when an author writes in the voice of someone of the opposite sex. Colm Toibin has impressed me in the past with his ability to write from the female perspective and here, I feel that Hustvedt has captured the male voice so well.
She said in an interview with Bookslut in 2008,
Writing as a man is not an act of translation but means becoming a man while you are working, not unlike an actor becoming his role. I truly believe that most of us have men and women within us and can hear the voices of both sexes, as well as feel the nuanced and sometimes blatant differences between them. A male voice necessarily carries more authority that a woman’s simply because as a culture we give men that privilege. As a woman, I take pleasure in adopting the dominant male tone and assuming a central role, but I have also found that wrenching my perspective away from the feminine, I’ve been able to discover feelings, images, and thoughts I wouldn’t have had without the transformation.
The ageing Leo makes a cameo appearance in Hustvedt’s later novel, The Sorrows of an American (2008) a story about immigration that follows the lives of siblings, Erik and Inga. Hustvedt said in the same interview that she ‘missed Leo terribly and felt compelled to bring him back.’
I will now have to read The Sorrows of an American as I also miss Leo terribly now that I have finished What I Loved.
Hustvedt is an intelligent writer who embraces her intelligence. I never felt like she was showing off for the sake of being clever. She was writing about something that meant a lot to her, that stirred her passions – intellectually and emotionally.
Inga’s irritation with American culture borders on outrage and reflects my own criticisms of life in the United States today. I once considered writing a book called Culture Nausea (which I proceeded to give to Inga) in which I planned to rail against media cant, rampant anti-intellectualism, political verbiage, the revolting trampling over the rule of law, the wholesale adoption of received ideas without the slightest examination, the lust for the ugly confession, and innumerable other thorns in my side. (Bookslut 2008 interview)
I suspect most of her books reflect Inga’s irritation and outrage, certainly What I Loved does and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed reading a book that engaged my brain and my heart at the same time.
What I Loved was longlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize)