What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

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.

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17 Responses to What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

  1. anokatony says:

    Hi Kerry,
    I remember reading “What I Loved” between Christmas and New Years at the end of 2008. It only took me 4 days to read it, a much shorter time than it usually takes me to read a 300+ page book. At the time, I was somewhat put off by the snobbish-seeming attitudes of these characters in the New York art world, but as I thought more about the situation, I appreciated it more, and I put it as number 10 on my list of the best books of 2009. I guess I was not put off by the shortcomings of any of the characters, besides what I said above, as I expect these in good fiction.

    Siri Hustvedt’s first book ‘The Blindfold’ was unqualifiedly wonderful. Her novel ‘The Enchantment of Lily Dahl’ was a bit of a disaster.

  2. Kerry says:

    Tony,

    I had lost track of who deserved credit for my “discovery” of Siri Hustvedt. I apologize for not giving credit where credit was due.

    I am finding that the book grows on me as time goes on. I was not so put off by the characters’ snobbery and, really, did not particularly notice it as snobbery. Though I definitely see what you mean. I was not entirely happy with the Teddy Giles storyline, though that is a huge part of the novel. It seemed a little sensationalistic. But Siri Hustvedt fits all the pieces together so tightly and her premise is so forcefully, but not obviously or awkwardly, put forward, that I am having a hard time quibbling.

    In all, I was very impressed with Hustvedt. Slightly less so with this particular book. The Blindfold is a definite TBR and the next Hustvedt for me.

    Thank you for introducing Hustvedt to me.

  3. Sarah says:

    Fascinating review, Kerry. Particularly so because I cannot be entirely sure whether you loved the book or not. You say not, but it seems that there may be a fine dividing line in this instance. You sold it to me anyway; it sounds as if it would be worth reading just for that first section.

    I did like the quotes you included, especially the two referring to the artist and the writer respectively. The sort of thing I would go away and puzzle over with much enjoyment.

    Looking forward to your Paul Auster review. I have only read one so far, and was left a little on the fence.

  4. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    Thank you. I think that I am not entirely sure myself whether I loved it or not. Hustvedt is an excellent stylist and astute observer, yet, I did not enjoy what was probably supposed to be the most thrilling part. Whether I loved it, I did respect it. I suspect my disappointment is not so much a lack of a achievement on the author’s part, but a lack of fit, maybe, on mine.

    I remember your Auster review which, incidentally, made me really want to read that particular work while leaving you on the fence. Interesting. I have chosen to start with his 2009 work Invincible for no other reason than that it was the most current offering at the time I decided to pick up one of his books. I have not read it yet, but will soon.

    Thank you very much for your comment. I hope to hear your take on Hustvedt before too long. I always find it interesting to compare reactions.

  5. Oh darn, you have not helped me out at all. This novel has been sitting on the shelf for months and every time I consider it, I end up putting it back. Now, with this ambivalent review, I’ll probably keep doing that — positive enough that I should consider, but all those lurking concerns seem to be confirmed in your review. I have read The Sorrows of an American and was ambivalent about that one as well.

    I think that does qualify me to say that you will find no comparison with Auster, and should probably try to erase that from your mind when you do get to Invincible. I am on the positive side of neutral with him and do own a copy of Invincible but I won’t be trying it until I am in the right frame of mind — reviews I respect say that it is not the best of Auster and I have a number of others on hand (I’m about halfway through his work). For me the clear best is The New York Trilogy.

  6. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    Sorry about the lack of help on Hustvedt.

    I haven’t gotten to Invincible precisely for the reasons you mention. I have heard it is not his best, but it is the one I own. Regardless of how it strikes me, I will be tackling his New York Trilogy. Probably next year, though. Auster has a new one coming out this year, I believe. So, if I read two Auster’s, it will probably be Invincible and the new one.

  7. I may pass on this for now, though the fact it’s so disturbing speaks well to its credit. A bad book can’t disturb in that particular way.

    The only Auster I’ve read is Leviathan, which I really enjoyed. I own the New York Trilogy so will read that next, and then see if I continue or not with him.

  8. Sasha says:

    Excellent review, Kerry. I read this about a week ago, & I’ve been wondering how I could possibly write about it [I need to, for a publication, and the speechlessness is driving me–and my editor–crazy]. Your thoughts really blew me away; I found myself nodding along.

    I think, though, the difference between your experience and mine was, well, I was so engrossed in Hustvedt’s world, that even though I was disturbed, during and after, I had to read on. This afternoon I was looking at the pages I’d marked out. They still gave me the shivers.

    Re Auster–I’ve read several of his books, and in my opinion, there’s just this sinister-ness in how Hustvedt handles the eroticism. Auster is more controlled, I feel, but he crushes you when you least expect it. With Hustvedt, you have to be on your toes a lot. [Augh, I’m rambling–I’m still trying to make sense of it, actually.]

    I’ve been doing a little project–read Lydia Davis [Auster’s first wife], Hustvedt, and Auster in one contained period–in a month, perhaps. Hustvedt draws a lot from this triangle in What I Loved–I’d read that Davis’ son was the “basis” for Mark.

    Oh, and a little tidbit–I’ve grown obsessed with these three–Hustvedt & Auster can be so adorable, even intertextually: Auster wrote a protagonist who’s married to the protagonist of Hustvedt’s first novel. That just tickles me pink, haha.

    I’ve rambled, rambled. Lastly: How about we read New York Trilogy together? It’s been languishing in my shelves for too long. Just a thought. 🙂

  9. Kerry says:

    Max,

    I would follow Tony’s advice and read Blindfold first if you are ambivalent about this one. Hustvedt is definitely an extraordinary writer, but I am not sure this one is for everyone. I am certainly happy I read it, but it likely will not be one of my year-end favorites.

    I am looking forward to Auster’s New York Trilogy.

  10. Kerry says:

    Sasha,

    Thank you for the compliment and stopping by with a comment. The story is engaging.

    Your project sounds fascinating and adds another dimension to my own Auster-Hustvedt idea. I love the autobiographical details you have pulled out. Thank you.

    Lastly, I would be interesting in reading Auster’s New York Trilogy with you. That sounds like fun. I always enjoy comparing notes. Let’s set a time frame.

    • Sasha says:

      Just tell me when you’d like to start. 🙂 Since it is a trilogy, we could read one book/section at a time. :] Or whatever you think’ll be better. I’m ready when you are!

      • Kerry says:

        How about we aim for finishing City of Glass by July 5th? I know, that is like forever for you, but I have to be sure I can finish Cloud Atlas and The Secret Agent and then get started on City of Glass.

        Oh, and I think you may have aimed that request at Max, who we should definitely rope into this. As well as anyone else who wants to join in….

  11. As we have already discussed, I’d like to read Siri Hustvedt but maybe I won’t start with this one. While I had heard of her, what brought her particularly to my attention was a little video of her talking about why she loves Jane Austen: http://www.themorgan.org/video/HustvedtOnAusten.asp I found her comments engaging and perceptive and I decided that I really should read her. And yet, I still haven’t!

  12. Kerry says:

    I really enjoyed that video clip. Excellent stuff. I can see how that would be very enticing, particularly for a Jane Austen fan (I like Austen, but have not read her since my early undergraduate days).

    Siri’s comment about economy and “no fat” in writing is a good self-description. As I tried to convey in my review, her story and prose are tightly packed and every word does advance her thesis. She is an excellent writer even if I was not sold on this one as an exceptionally excellent book. It is very good, maybe even excellent, but something about it leaves it short of brilliant for me.

  13. […] of this: It’s just so rich and dense. I wanted to talk about every bit of . Kerry posted a review of the book, and it was that post that finally urged me to sit my ass down and write about the experience as […]

  14. Sasha says:

    City of Glass come July 5th is on. Good luck with Cloud Atlas — Mitchell has me cowering with just a glance on his book covers.

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