I am reviewing my most recent reads entirely out of order. I would have to go back to check when this started happening, and maybe I could not unravel the mystery even with the effort. The reasons are various. Sometimes, I want to wait and think about a book. Other times, I am excited about the book and want to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I am ambivalent about the book just finished, so I write instead about one that moved me in some way. Other times, this time, I feel almost sullied, so I write about it to purge myself.
I do not mean “sullied” as a negative. Siri Hustvedt is a poet and writes beautiful prose. The novel is engaging and has depth. And, yet, by the end I had a feeling of contamination. Perhaps, she writes too well, knows her subject too well, conveys the emotions of her characters too well.
Leo Hertzberg, an art historian and critic, narrates the novel and, from very early, it is clear that Hustvedt is intimately familiar with the New York art scene. On the opening pages, Leo recounts the contents of the fourth of five letters from Violet to Bill in which Violet declares her love for Bill. The power of the letters prompts Leo to write this book.
Leo then embarks on the chronological narrative, which begins with Leo buying from a gallery a painting that impresses him. The primary subject of the painting is a woman lying on the floor in an empty room.
It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excrutiating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow as my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man’s T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.
Leo tracks down the artist of this “self-portrait”, William “Bill” Wechsler, and strikes up a friendship. Leo and his wife, Erica, end up living in the same building as, and directly beneath, Bill and his wife, Lucille. Both couples have sons at nearly the same time and become a close-knit group: “two families, one on top of the other.” Violet is the beautiful model in the painting.
This book is steeped in art, for that is what initially binds Bill and Leo. Many are the expositions on the meaning of art or the content of particular works, whether real or imaginary. This novel is so tightly constructed that each conversation is packed with meaning that, on a re-read, would undoubtedly multiply and reverberate.
In one of Bill and Leo’s early discussions, Bill is discussing medical drawings and Cezanne.
”That’s the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what’s in front of you. Cezanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt.” He stopped and smiled at me. “Because that’s what we’re sure of.”
Little scenes like this take on new meaning after you have finished the work. Not unlike Bill’s painting, close examination reveals new and surprising details that deepen and complicate the work. Leo’s failing eyesight in late life has already been disclosed, but the completeness of the metaphor is not entirely revealed until the final pages. Early on, there are hints, like this one, of the ubiquity of doubt and its importance in our lives.
Closely related to doubt is duplicity and this novel fully explores dishonesty in its many manifestations. As that early letter reveals, Bill is not faithful to Lucille. His infidelity has far-reaching consequences for each of the primary characters in this book.
Duplicity is dishonesty, but the word calls to mind duplication and doubling as well, which is another pervasive theme in the novel. The two families are neatly symmetrical. Leo and Erica, Bill and Lucille. Later, they have sons: Matthew and Mark. M&M. Before this, though, Leo describes a conversation with Lucille, a writer.
She talked as if she were observing her own sentences, looking at them from afar, judging their sounds and shapes even as they came from her mouth. Every word she spoke rang with honesty; and yet this earnestness was matched by a simultaneous irony. Lucille amused herself by occupying two positions at once. She was both the subject and the object of her own statements.
Just as Bill was, in some sense, both the subject and the object of his “self-portrait.”
Despite the similarities of age, the two boys’ alliterative names, and their close relationship, Matt and Mark are quite different. While Bill is the visionary artist, it is Leo’s son, Matt, who shines with pen and paints. Bill and Matt bond over baseball too. “In a single body, Bill combined Matt’s two great passions.” And, yet, Leo does not seem to be threatened by their closeness and Matt loves his father. Bill, too, loves his own son. The close relationship between Bill and Matt is simply another confusing, complicating aspect of these two entangled families’ lives.
Violet is another. She and Bill have an affair that destroys Bill’s marriage to Lucille. Lucille moves out, Violet moves in, and the five adults and two children become more entangled than ever. Hustvedt is an extremely perceptive observer of human relations. Her depictions of intimate moments between lovers or friends or enemies have a quiet intensity that carries with it both truth and doubt, much like Lucille’s earnestness and irony. The reader both knows the characters and does not. Mysteries abound, both in personalities and events.
The novel is divided into three sections. By the end of the first section, Bill, Violet, Leo, Erica, Matt, and Mark are nearly a single unit. They vacation together, live in the same house, send their boys to the same camp to bunk together, and otherwise are as entangled as two families could seem to manage. Even Lucille unites them in a strange way. She has moved out of town, but is still relevant. She haunts each of the adults in a different way, her existence a shadow, for a time the only shadow, on their lives.
The second section opens with a punch to the gut. A character dies. The first third of the novel always had an ominousness to it, but that first section ends so happily that the shift is difficult to take. The raw emotion of the characters is difficult to read. Their grief is not only real but infectious. Hustvedt may write a little too well.
The grief never ends, but it does fade. The novel becomes something of a psychological thriller. The issues of duplicity and doubling take on greater and more unsettling urgency. One character, in particular, becomes something of a threat to the others, or seems to. Leo, for instance, is never quite sure whether the character is telling the truth or lying, sincere or fake, ally or foe.
Along with this potential menace, a shock artist, Teddy Giles, befriends one of the clan. Whether the friendship is based on a true connection or merely an attempt to undermine one or both of his detractors (Bill and Leo) is never quite clear to Leo or to the reader. Giles specializes in horror. Bill and Leo see his work as cliched, though Giles insists he is subverting cliched horror for more serious artistic purposes. Giles’ depictions of dismembered bodies and severed limbs are initially disturbing more for the attention they draw than for the truths they reveal about the mind that created them. Giles thrives on hype, rumors, and ambiguous history, never settling on an identity or a past. He embodies the worst of what plagues Leo and the surviving characters through the last half of the book.
To delve too deeply into the plot twists and turns of the second half would be resolve too much of the tension and ambiguity that is a necessary part of the novel. But I will try to convey my reaction.
I felt dirty. By the end of the novel, I had spent too much time with a seriously disturbed character and, more wearyingly, with those trying to help and those trying to exploit that character. I wanted to give up on the character, I wanted the others to give up too. But the families are too entangled for any of them to let the lost cause go. Leo says early in the book:
The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say “I,” I am really saying “we.”
This is a story of a group and, however defective the one character is, the group cannot just push the character out. They have too much loyalty to each other, to the group, for that.
I have not addressed many of the novel’s complexities. Hustvedt did extensive research on eating disorders, hysteria, and psychopathy to supplement her apparently encyclopedic knowledge of art and literature. In addition to the themes I have already mentioned, she also examines the idea that people often “become what they [are] near” or, perhaps, merely emulate what they are near.
Despite this depth, the book was not entirely satisfying to me. I think that is primarily because of the character who is not only a liar, but seems unable to grasp the truth. The effect on the other characters is devastating. For me, I lost interest in what happened to the character. Next to violence, lying is the most destructive human behavior. And lying is more unsettling than violence. Hustvedt did a fantastic job conveying the full consequences and pathologies of compulsive lying, but the result is not an easy book. And yet, though it has only been a day since I finished, the trying aspects are fading while the strengths remain impressed in my recollection. I will seek out more of her work, only not too soon.
I will be reading something by Paul Auster soon. He is Hustvedt’s husband and the man to whom this work is dedicated. I am looking forward to comparing their styles. I have not yet read any Auster, but I am intrigued. Hustvedt is good, but there is room, in my opinion, for Auster to be better.