Thursday, July 08, 2010

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

My character type, according to the Jungian Myers Brigg Type Indicator, suggests that I am someone who is a seeker of truth, for whom the actual experience of something is secondary to the understanding of it: the concept, rather than the experience itself, is the motivating force. I am happier to have done something than to be doing it. Another such character is Leo Hertzberg, the narrator of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. This is the story of an ageing man, an art critic who is turning blind, looking back on his life and seeking to understand it. In this reflective state – the unavoidable result of the passage of time – he and his family and friends are ‘no longer the actors in the story, but its spectators who have chosen to speak.’ And the speeches that ensue form the basis for a retrospective search for understanding. What is real, what is artifice? Does the nature of love, like the characters of each one of us, shift over time? How are our lives shaped by those whom and that which we love?

The trouble for characters like Leo and me, of course, is that we have a tendency to over-analyse. In our search for meaning we delve deeper and deeper into any situation, seeking the elusive answer. Everything has to be understood and then explained. That can make us difficult people to live or work with. And it can make any novel written from the perspective of someone with such a disposition extremely hard work. What I Loved is extremly hard work. It is also extremely good. If it were only a hundred pages shorter it would be superb.

Leo Hertzberg is a professor of art history. His best friend, Bill Weschler, is a significant modern artist. They and their families – Bill and Violet and Bill’s son Mark, Leo and his wife Erica and their son Matthew – form the core of the novel. They are close, and live conventionally privileged lives within the cocoon of the New York art establishment. This is drawn in elaborate detail. Each of Bill’s art works is described exactly, both figuratively and symbolically, and the characters’ daily events are subjected to precise psychoanalytical dissection. This is not simply the characteristic perspective of the truth-seeking narrator: all of the characters, even the children, are constantly analysing themselves and their situations to such an extent that one wonders how they found time for any new experiences at all amid all that agonised self-examination. The INTP character type shared by Leo and me is relatively rare – only about 1% of the population – and there’s a good reason for that, because get too many of us in a room together and a kind of psychic chaos ensues. Life is meaning, and meaning is understanding. Thus, reality cannot be allowed to proceed until everyone understands everything that is happening. Physical responses become subsumed by intellectual analysis. If 22 INTPs were playing a game of football it would take them until half time to realise they’d forgotten the ball, by which time they’d have changed the rules anyway so that they were playing chess. What I Loved seems to be stuffed full of INTPs, all trying to invent their own rules for life. My guess is that Siri Hustved, herself, is such a character type, and it has infested each of her creations. It is a serious weakness.

It is not until 130 pages in, when tragedy intervenes, that the novel truly takes off. Even then, as you would expect, the resulting bereavement becomes the focus of much agonised soul-searching (and never try to manipulate the feelings of an INTP, we instinctively kick against it), but it proves the catalyst for a shift in the novel which is fascinating and sustained and drives the narrative forward. Bill’s son, Mark, becomes the key character, an initially sweet child who increasingly becomes a troubled youth, and who falls under the spell of a charismatic but malevolent artist, Teddy Giles. Giles is part Andy Warhol, part Svengali but, as the novel develops, the overriding question becomes whether he is, too, part Ed Gein. Michiko Kakutani calls this section of the novel ‘a hokey thriller‘ with ‘sensationalistic tone and implausible events’ but as usual she is wilfully misreading the narrative to confirm her preconceptions. One gets the impression that Kakutani makes snap judgements, from which derive strident soundbites – positive or negative –and all subsequent reading must either confirm that judgement or else be discounted. Far from being implausible, what makes this section of What I Loved so skilful is that Hustvedt creates a genuine sense of doubt in the reader. Giles’s art is shocking, focusing heavily on dismembered bodies and the detritus of death, and he is, too, surrounded by hints and rumours of dark events in his real life. He may simply be a charlatan courting sensational publicity, or he may be dangerous. Indeed, he may have killed a young man who had formed part of his entourage. We don’t know which he is, opportunist or psychopath. Nor do we know the extent to which Mark is complicit in Giles’s machinations, or or to which he is simply an ingenu caught up in forces he cannot understand. Out of this confusion Hustved creates an impressive degree of tension, and her characterisation of the troubled Mark is beautifully handled. He is easily the most intriguing character I have read this year, with Giles not far behind. If it wasn’t for the narrator Leo continually dragging the narrative back into tortured reflection and analysis, theirs would be an extraordinary story. As it is, it remains an excellent one.

Hustvedt is an impressive writer, with an acute psychological understanding of her characters. This is both her strength and her weakness. What I Loved creates living, breathing characters, but at times one gets the feeling that Bill, Leo, Violet and Erica are essentially the same character, endlessly dissecting the world to establish its meaning. Having created such living, breathing characters, it is a pity that Hustvedt didn’t leave them to analyse a bit less and live a bit more.


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Jon Lindsay said...

Thanks for an interesting read. And how different we readers are. I found the diversion into the story of Mark - and Leo's absurd pursuit of him - the disappointment in the book, which had begun in those first hundred or so pages with an intensity that made me think I was entering a potentially great work. After the depth of characterisation in this early section, we are taken into superficial sightings of Mark (despite the apparent focus on him), Giles and his gang, and Lazlo, who to me are two dimensional; I was uninterested in them and I didn't have enough of a relationship with Mark as a real character to be interested in whether he had committed a crime or not.

I would have liked to have continued to understand the modulations of the love affairs among the early characters, ending with some idea of what Violet - and Leo - understood of what had not happened between them.

All this probably says more about me than the book, but then as readers we bring our own world to any text. Which is what my interest in reading and writing is.

Tom Conoboy said...

Jon, thanks very much for taking the time to comment. Fascinating, isn't it, the way two people can approach a work in entirely different ways and see different strengths and weaknesses in it.

I do actually agree that Leo's pursuit of Mark ended up being absurd. The plane chase across America felt forced. But I was still struck by the fact I simply couldn't decide, as the novel progressed, whether or not Giles was a fraud. I was gripped by that question.

And yes, perhaps some, not exactly resolution, but at least some final reflection on Violet and Leo might have been good.

I guess, if we combine your view of the first 100 pages and mine of the rest, this is a superb novel. The other round, and it is only a so-so novel. The truth is probably in the middle.

thanks again for commenting.