From slow start to page turner

imageIt took me awhile to get into the swing of Siri Hustvedt’s What I loved from 2003, but I have now finally finished it, reading the last third of its nearly 400 pages in just one day.

It is a moving tale of love and grief and the devastating moments that change the course of your life and relationships forever. Its narrator, Leo Hertzberg, is an academic art historian residing in New York. The story follows 25 years of his life when he befriends an artist, Bill Weschler, and tracks their lives alongside each other. The story is bookended so we understand it comprises Leo’s reflections on his life as an old man.

It is a very complex tale which starts out reading like an arts critic’s very long notes about artwork you never see, his own life and the lives of those around him. I found it boringly analytical and lacking a plot to move the story forward. I was, frankly, bored and felt these highly intellectualised analyses of the New York art scene in the last quarter of the 20th century aloof and irrelevant. But then suddenly a death ensues that impact both Leo and Bill deeply. For me the novel picked up pace at this point, but it was not until the complexity of the young teenager, Mark’s, character starts unfolding before our eyes, the book became a page turner for me.

Because I have been preoccupied with ideas of identity, memory and belonging, I noted particularly the insights about the nature of knowing, memory and the narratives we tell about ourselves. In a passage that captures some of this, Leo muses:

The recollections of an older man are different from those of a young man. What seemed vital at forty may lose its significance at seventy. We manufacture stories, after all, from the fleeting sensory material that bombards us at every instant, a fragmented series of pictures, conversations, odors, and the touch of things and people. We delete most of it to live with some semblance of order, and then the reshuffling of memory goes on until we die. (p127)

We must necessarily be selective in what we take in or we will be overwhelmed complexity. Though I am not writing memoir, my own creative writing practice helps me reduce the complexity of my own narrative because I take inspiration from my memory. By putting words to the fleeting sensory material I have stashed away in my memory, I make clear selections about what has been important and what has been less significant in my own story.

In Leo’s story objects become an aide memoir and reducers of complexity. He builds a curious collection of artefacts from his life. They help him fill out the blanks and emphasise narratives that might not have been as significant, had he not stored precisely those artefacts in his drawer. Reviewing his objects, Leo reflects how every story we tell about ourselves can only be told in the past tense. It winds backward from where we now stand, no longer the actors in the story but its spectators who have chosen to speak (p385).

These are indeed wise words that reflect the complex nature of our constantly evolving identity. But the trouble with Leo is that I am not convinced of his authenticity. I don’t think he is a convincing male character. I have no doubt Hustvedt has been at pains to reflect her narrator as a male, but I was irritated by his lack of masculinity, by his overly analytical behaviour. I did not hear a man tell the story: it was someone asexual, in between the sexes. I thought her narrator in Summer without Men was far more believable and clever. My reaction makes me wonder how successfully a female writer can ever authentically write from the point of view of a male narrator and vice versa. Perhaps one of my readers can point me to  successful examples?

This is a small complaint: it is an excellently written book, perhaps too long, but lyrical and beautiful both in its story and its langauge. I will read more Hustvedt.

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2 thoughts on “From slow start to page turner

  1. Susan

    Hi Lone,
    Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) and Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) both write male characters very well.
    I must admit I could not finish ‘What I loved’ but agree that Siri’s female protaganist in ‘Summer without Men’ is immensely likeable.

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    1. lonebonekaffekone Post author

      Oh, how could I forget Mr Cromwell – yes, I agree he was an excellent male character. I don’t know Marilynne Robinson, but will track her down. Thanks for your comment, Susan

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