I’d read three of Siri Hustvedt’s books before this one: What I Loved, which haunts me in the best possible way with its intimations of conceptually-artistic murder and child death; Memories of the Future, a Woolfian excavation of a woman’s recollections of early adulthood in New York City; and A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, a brilliant but dense collection of essays on art, sex, and neuroscience. I was told to expect lighter fare with this, and I can see why: that Jane Austen comparison (from the Daily Mail, no less—boak), the jaunty readeress on the front cover, a plot that promised to retread old midlife-marriage-crisis ground. Mia Fredericksen, a middle-aged moderately successful experimental poet, is told by her husband Boris, a neurobiologist, that he wants “a pause” in their marriage in order to pursue a relationship with a much younger French colleague. Mia experiences a brief bout of psychosis, and a stay in hospital, then goes back to a Midwestern town where her mother is now in an assisted living facility to recover for the summer. There she becomes embroiled in the social drama of several twelve-year-old girls to whom she teaches a poetry workshop; befriends her neighbour Lola, a twenty-six-year-old woman with two small children and a deeply unstable, angry husband; discovers the subversive art produced over many decades by one of her mother’s friends in the facility, Abigail; and tries to come to terms with the possibility that her marriage is over. Sounds a bit like Frederick Backman or Joanna Cannon, right? Charming. Inoffensive. A trifle twee.
Noooo. No no no no no.
Hustvedt’s work is intensely metatextual and allusive; always has been. It makes perfect sense that Mia, a poet and professor, should have quotations at her finger’s ends. Throughout the book, she refers, inter alia, to the works of: Emily Dickinson, George Trakl, Alice in Wonderland, Friedrich von Klinger, a whole sublist of mad poets (“Torquato Tasso, John Clare, Christopher Smart, Friedrich Holderlin, Anontin Arnaud […], Edna St Vincent Millay […], Anne Sexton, Laura Riding, Sara Teasdale, Vachel Lindsay, John Berryman, James Schuyler, Sylvia Plath, Delmore Schwartz…”), Jane Eyre, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, Tom Lehrer, the Book of Job, Soren Kierkegaard. That’s only the first fifty pages. I just flicked through; there’s something every two or three pages or so. There is also, consistently, the Jane Austen novel Persuasion, which Mia’s mother’s book club is reading and discussing. Persuasion, of course, is known best for being Austen’s most middle-aged novel, a book in which youthful mistakes and arrogance, and the pain they cause, are not ignored—the effects of Anne’s initial rejection of Wentworth are not undone—but in which a second chance, another choice, is made possible. (It’s Austen’s version of Shakespeare’s late romances, her Tempest or Winter’s Tale, perhaps.)
Hustvedt is a sophisticated enough writer not to suggest that better worlds are likely, but she does offer chances. The girls to whom Mia teaches poetry are not all natural readers or writers, and the one who is—Alice—is shunned and bullied for being what the other girls incoherently refer to as “stuck up”. What they mean is that Alice’s feelings are strong and external; that she makes herself vulnerable; and that the sight of her vulnerability in conjunction with her access to imaginative (if overheated) self-expression is enraging, that it makes them want to hurt her. Mia’s method of dealing with this crisis, when it comes to a head, is to force all of the girls into writing accounts of the debacle from each other’s points of view. It looks, at first, like the old, hoary notion that fiction fosters empathy, but that’s not Mia’s purpose, or Hustvedt’s:
By Thursday it was obvious that a tacit script had already been written, and the children had thrown themselves into their own melodrama with gusto. Alice lost something of her stature as a romantic heroine, but her suffering was acknowledged by all, and she entered the lives of her tormentors with such zeal that by Friday, Nikki cried out, “Oh my God, Alice, you like being the mean one!” […] The story they all took home on Friday was not true; it was a version they could all live with, very much like national histories that blur and hide and distort the movements of people and events in order to preserve an idea. The girls did not want to hate themselves, and, although self-hatred is not at all uncommon, the consensus they reached about what had happened among them was considerably softer than [“homo homini lupus“].The Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt, p. 201
The way to start over again, then, in life, is to tell a different story. What I love Hustvedt for is that she never says that. She just has her characters doing it. Mia, for instance, runs through Boris’s many tics and quirks and downright thoughtless habits, and those are stories; she also tells herself differing versions of the same tale when her daughter Daisy reports that Boris is now living in a hotel: he has broken up with The Pause, The Pause has broken up with him, they’re still together but the apartment isn’t big enough so they’ve moved in to a hotel, they’ve mutually broken up, none of the above. Her ability to cope with her life is determined by her ability to narrativize it. The same is true of Abigail, her mother’s friend. It transpires that she has spent much of her adult life making entirely unobjectionable-looking needlepoint pieces which, on further inspection, contain secret unseemlinesses: a button is the knob of a door that opens onto a scene of cavorting naked women, or flying Hoovers, or flaming female dragon-monsters. Abigail was in love with a woman but married a man—a man who failed her—and it is not hard to start drawing parallels between her story and Persuasion and Austen’s biography and the long history of furious, hidden, secret female art.
Mia’s metatextual playfulness extends to the very book we’re reading. She is its author as well as its subject, we are given to understand. As with all of Hustvedt’s work, Virginia Woolf’s ghost hovers when it comes to discussions of time and the fictional representation thereof:
How to tell it? asks your sad, crack-brained, crybaby narrator. How to tell it? It gets a bit crowded from here on in—there’s simultaneity, one thing happening at Rolling Meadow, another at the Arts Guild, another at the neighbouring house, not to speak of my Boris wandering the streets of NYC with my confused Daisy on his heels; all of this will have to be dealt with. And we all know that simultaneity is a BIG [sic] problem for words. They come in sequence, always, only in sequence, so while I sort it out, I will refer to Dr. Johnson.Ibid., p. 134
It’s not a light book; it’s just not heavy. It’s a Trojan horse for deep levels of thought about time, cause and effect in relationships, action, structure, narrative. It is, in other words, not far from what my friend and former colleague Faye means when she talks about “soft metafiction”. I already know it’ll be a book to revisit.
The Summer Without Men was published in 2011; my copy is from Sceptre.