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That summer could have been without us as well

January 12, 2014 10 comments

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt 2011 French title : Un été sans les hommes.

Hustvedt_EteWhat does an avid reader do when two people whose opinion she respects have an opposite vision of a book written by a writer she likes? She reads the book herself to make up her mind. This is how I came to The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt. Caroline didn’t like it. Someone else loved it. So what’s the verdict? I have to admit that like Caroline, I wonder what happened to Siri Hustvedt.

In this novel, Mia, 50ish, spends the summer in her hometown in Minnesota. Her husband has asked for a Pause in their marriage after 30 years together and she ended up in a psychiatric hospital. For her husband, the Pause has the form of a French young woman (talk about cliché) and for her it means recovering from a major nervous breakdown. So Mia is there, near her mother, connecting with a young neighbour, teaching poetry to a group of teenagers and spending time with old ladies. Ah, yes, because Mia is a Poet while her husband is a scientist. Talk about cliché again.

With a bit of imagination and a good dose of humour, it could be a good scenario but the way it is written kills everything. I didn’t believe in any of the characters and frankly, I didn’t feel any empathy for Mia. Her constant references to poets or philosophers irritated me. I’m not well-read in poetry and philosophy and the few poets I know are almost all French. So I didn’t get the references and I felt left behind. I hate it when writers show off their culture and leave readers behind. If they use other writers for their story, it needs to be subtle or at least bring some depth to the book. Here, none of this happened. I have to give some credit to French publishers: the silliness of the cover captures well the silliness of the novel.

I’m not a very patient person and I couldn’t finish it. So yes, Caroline, you’re right, this book is utterly disappointing. If you’ve never read Siri Hustvedt, I suggest you start with The Enchantment of Lily Dahl and stay away from this one.

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

January 26, 2012 18 comments

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt 1996. French title: L’envoûtement de Lily Dahl.

The truth is, Miss Dahl, you can’t know nothin’ about nobody now, can you? Seems to me you yourself could hurt somebody if the time and place was right. That’s so ain’t it? Even them that’s closest to you, you can’t really know ‘bout them. One day you wake up and find out. Folks say ‘It ain’t possible, it can’t happen.’ You live a little longer, and it happens.

This month, our book club had chosen The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. How am I going to review it? Everything I could write will be pale compared to the hypnotic and eerie rhythm of the book. *sigh*

Webster, Minnesota. Lily Dahl, 19, works the morning shift at the Ideal Café. She waitresses the early birds who come for breakfast every day. There are Pete Lund who never speaks, the filthy Bodlers brothers, the unbalanced Martin Petersen and other weirdos or lonely people of Webster.

Well, there’s no law against weirdos, Lil’. This is America. We grow ’em fast and furious.

Lily lives in a small apartment next to the café. Her parents moved away to Florida, she has no family left in Webster. Her neighbour is Mabel, a 78 years-old widow, former English teacher, currently writing her memoirs. The walls are thin as cigarette paper; Lily can hear Mabel move in her bed. The two women befriend despite the difference in age and culture. But as Lily once says to Mabel “You don’t act that old, you know” and the older woman retorts “Well, my inside never caught up with my outside”. Isn’t that a marvelous definition of old age?

Lily’s an aspiring actress; she admires Marilyn Monroe and has her poster on her wall. She plays in the local theater; she got the role of Hermia in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. The play and the rehearsal will follow us along the book, enforcing the dreamlike atmosphere.

Although she’s dating Hank, Lily is obsessed with Edward Shapiro, a painter from New York, settled in the rotten Stuart Hotel across the street. Lily watches him at night, spying on him, trying to know him. One evening, she strips in front of her window with the light on, knowing he’ll be watching her. She sets their relationship into motion and starts an affair with Ed.

This novel puts the reader into a trance, diving them into the atmosphere of this small rural American town. Everybody knows everything about everybody. Gossip is unavoidable, anonymity impossible. Old stories from the past are never quite forgotten and remain with the people. As Lily thinks:

Stupid town, she said to herself, full of long noses sniffing for dirt and those lips yakking about it once they’ve found it.

I couldn’t help hearing the song Marylin & John by Vanessa Paradis. Not that I’m a fan but some way I couldn’t put it out of my mind. It’s about the love affair between Marilyn Monroe and John Kennedy. Lily has something of Marilyn Monroe, the same mix of boldness and innocence, of sensuality and youth. In the book, Lily has dark hair (isn’t that strange for someone of Norwegian origin?) but I couldn’t help imagining her with blond hair and a full mouth.

I can’t explain exactly the heavy atmosphere, the feeling that a drama is looming. I felt like reading an old movie, with that peculiar light I can’t describe right. The desert street at night, the shabby hotel and the Ideal Café, far from being ideal contrast with the natural setting of that Minnesota summer, its wild flowers, its heat. Siri Hustdvedt has a thing for inventing tortured and unusual characters. Who is really Ed with his peculiar paintings and his curious way to reach the soul of his models? What does he want from Lily? And what goes through the mind of the strange Martin Petersen with his abnormal intelligence and his bizarre attraction to Lily? Lily isn’t quite herself during that summer, enchanted, she acts out of character. It’s like a LA atmosphere from a Noir crime fiction novel misplaced in the setting of The Little House on the Prairie.

I loved this novel but I can’t review it properly, so I’m very frustrated. I can’t put my impressions into words, except that it’s well worth reading for the story and the style, that Siri Hustdvedt is a talented writer and that it would make an excellent film.

The Heartguard

September 25, 2011 15 comments

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt. 2008.  Translated into French as Eligie pour un Américain.

This is my first Siri Hustvedt and it deeply impressed me. Unlike my other readings, I felt the urge to take notes while I was reading, not to write down ideas but as a means to tame the strong reaction I had to her text.

Erik Davidsen is a divorced psychiatrist who lives in New York but grew up in Minnesota, in a family of Norwegian origins. His sister Inga also lives in New York with her teenage daughter Sonia. Inga is a philosopher and a writer and she’s the widow of the famous writer Max Blaustein. Max died five years ago from cancer but Inga still suffers a lot from his absence. When the story begins, Lars Davidsen, Erik and Inga’s father, just died and as Erik’s house is now too big for him after his divorce, he rents a level to Miranda and her five-years-old daughter Eglantine. Mother and daughter enter into his life.

Erik explores his father’s past through Lars’s memoirs and Inga is face to face with Max’s hidden past. She’s also the keeper of his literary work. It’s about mourning, memory and the question of identity. We define ourselves according to our environment and our relationships with other people. What does it do to our self when a beloved person dies? Who is Inga without Max? The part of Inga who was “Max’s wife” has to die too. Who is Erik without his father’s figure? The part of Erik named “Lars’s son” has to die too.

The absence of joy seeps from this book but it’s not weepy at all. Our narrator, Erik, is beige and whispering. All the characters have a secret crack in their soul, in their being. And Erik isn’t photosensitive but sorrow-sensitive. Other people’s pains go under his skin and meet his, not by osmosis but by capillarity. There’s a sort of permeability of pain from Erik’s patients to himself. From Inga to Erik. From Sonia to Erik. I felt him breathing in his environment and breathing out sorrow in thoughts and dreams, feelings and visions. He’s also a caretaker. Some people are bodyguards. He’s the heartguard of his family. In French, I would have said « Il est leur garde du cœur » Nonetheless, I was watching him but not living with him. He’s a distant person with a vast personal space. As a reader, I couldn’t enter his bubble. Dreams, ghosts and secrets have a great part in the characters’ lives.

This novel is entitled Sorrows of an American and I didn’t see Erik as an American. I felt him more Norwegian than American. After that thought had crossed my mind, I wondered “What does it mean?” And I have no clear answer to that. Perhaps it’s because it reminded me of Wassmö’s books or because it also sounds like Nancy Huston. Or maybe it is because I pictured him silently crying like the man on Munch’s painting, The Cry. Erik has a muffled voice to tell painful memories and events, to evoke people who grew up in a family where too much was left unsaid. Erik exudes sadness and smothered sorrows. So do Inga, Miranda, Sonia.

It is the story of America, in a way or probably more the story of the American psyche. Through Lars Davidsen’s memoirs, the story of immigrants and farmers in Minnesota resurfaces. The Great Depression. The hardworking men. The distance between the farms and the snow that cuts them from the rest of the world during winter time. The poverty. It’s far from the myth of the glorious emigrant who came to the country of milk and honey. Emigrants don’t get rich but spend a lot of sweat. However, social ascension is a reality: Erik’s father was a history teacher and Erik himself is a psychiatrist.

The central question of races is present as another part of the origins of the American psyche. I’m always puzzled when I read that characters define themselves according to the percentage of black or Cherokee blood they have in them. Or more precisely, they give the percentage of non-white blood they have. Miranda is black, from Jamaica. Eglantine’s father is from mixed origins.

And then the trauma of 9/11, as Sonia was in school in Manhattan when it happened. She suffers from nightmares.

Siri Hustvedt’s father died when she was writing this book and she had time to ask him his permission to use parts of his memoirs in her novel. So I was moved to discover that Lars Davidsen’s memoirs were real. I wondered if Siri Hustvedt, from Minnesota and of Norwegian origins had split herself into Erik and Inga. Erik is the one who reads his father’s memoirs, like she did. Inga is a woman. She’s a little unbalanced, I don’t know how to phrase is into English except under the general “it’s the nerves”. Which brings us back to Siri Hustvedt and her book The Shaking Woman: A History of my Nerves. (Read Caroline’s excellent review here) Inga’s husband is a much acclaimed writer, innovative, a literary genius who overshadows his wife’s talent as a writer. Like Paul Auster? All in all, I had the feeling that she had put a lot of herself in this book.

The only thing that bothered me in that novel is the name of Miranda’s daughter, Eglantine, a French word meaning Wild Rose. An improbable name to me, I even downloaded a sample of the book to see if the translator had translated another name into Eglantine for the French public. But no, her name is really Eglantine, a floral name. So when she’s called Eggy, I sort of superimposed an image of an egg head on a wild rose bush and it was really weird. But it is a minor flaw and a personal incident.

That said, I loved this book (and if you reader hasn’t understood that by now, I’m a poor reviewer) and I want to read another one from her. Any suggestion?

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