'..there is no subject outside the purview of literature...there are NO RULES in art, and there is no ground under the feet of the Nitwits and Buffoons who think that there are rules and laws and forbidden territories, and no reason for a hierarchy that declares "broad" superior to "narrow" or "masculine" more desirable than "feminine"
Siri Hustvedt's narrator talking but I heart the sentiment entirely.
So Rev Cheryl came to visit last year...or was it the year before?? and brought with her some book gifts...or perhaps this was when I went to Rev Cheryl's for that Margaret Atwood event in Ely Cathedral and we exchanged more book gifts?? Tempus seems to have fugited so very fast that I can't quite remember, but it seems apt to mention bookish gifts and exchanges in general in the wake of what has turned out to be a wonderful weekend of book giving, because among the books that Rev Cheryl gave me and was most insistent I should read were a couple by Siri Hustvedt.
I had heard of Siri Hustvedt and knew she was married to the novelist Paul Auster but I had still not read the books, What I Loved and Sorrows of an American when the latest novel The Summer Without Men arrived a few weeks ago. Feeling chastened that I still hadn't read the gifts I decided that Suri's moment had come. and so I set about the latest novel, quickly realising that in many ways the book segued with my recent in-depth re-reading of Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife.
There are in fact real similarities of themes between the two with Siri Hustvedt's exploration of the arc of women's lives in The Summer Without Men whilst giving a voice to the silenced woman via the 'Pause' that is initiated in Mia Fredrickson's life when her husband of thirty years informs that he'd like a bit of a break in their marriage in order to 'indulge his infatuation with a young Frenchwoman.' Given little choice with Boris's decision but to accept it, Mia quite literally breaks and falls apart at the seams and after a sojourn in a psychiatric clinic she upsticks and moves to spend the summer in the prairie town of her childhood.
Slowly the benefits of the 'Pause' become apparent to Mia ...and I would add meno to pause because I think Siri Hustvedt is certainly exploring that time in a woman's life here. Having always been a 'scribbler of the stolen interval' whilst she raised a child, worked, ran the home and generally pandered to husband Boris's needs, Mia realises that there could be benefits to this holiday from him indoors...
'But then I hadn't fought for myself, or, rather, I hadn't fought in the right way. Some people just take the room they need, elbowing out intruders to take possession of a space. Boris could do it without moving a muscle...'
There has to be much to read into what may seem like, and indeed is, a regression into the safe spaces of childhood when the adult going gets tough; the loss of her known world is like a bereavement for the depleted Mia, so a retreat to safety, and perhaps renewed access to the source of the resilience she has temporarily lost makes complete sense. Mia reintegrates into the town via the life of her mother, now living in a retirement community and starts work as a creative writing teacher with a group of adolescent girls, and it is in her exploration of these two groups that Siri Hustvedt held my attention and excelled for me.
One group with the world at their feet and everything to look forward to but awash with insecurities, the other, the fiesty widows, with much to reflect on with the joys of hindsight and only one insecurity, the unknown one...when will death happen. As Mia moves between the two groups her experiences with each contributed both to her slow recovery and to my complete enjoyment of this book and via some wonderfully subversive moments along the way. Like ninety-four year old Abigail's revelation about her domestic needlecrafts... on the surface a teacosy or an apron, flip it inside out and there's the reveal, Abigail's 'private arsenal' her 'secret amusements' the subversive stitching that tells the real story of a woman's life and imagination, so you can perhaps see how this wove its way into my thinking about Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife.
As to whether Mia's recovery may embrace some mercy and forgiveness in Boris's direction should the French fancy depart... well as if I'm going to give that one away, but I was interested in my own reactions as I read because there is certainly an element of injecting your own feelings into a book like this, so astutely does it track women's lives and emotions.
Am I allowed to suggest that I doubt it's impossible for two authors to live together and not share some common ground on the subject of clever literary conceits and deceits, surely they talk about this sort of thing over the cornflakes? I have become used to these in my reading of Paul Auster and so I was delighted to find them in Siri Hustvedt's writing too, those little unexpected twists in the narrative, moments of authorial intervention...or is it done under the guise of the first person narrator, you can't be quite sure but those boundaries of uncertaintly feel seamless when they are crossed and I was completely engrossed.
'The fictive is an enormous territory, it turns out, its boundaries vague, and there is little certainty about where it begins and ends.'
says Suri Hustvedts's narrator which leads me to believe there is a great deal to miss in The Summer Without Men, and I think I may have missed plenty by focusing on those aspects that interested me most, mainly the ways that Suri Hustvedt so adroitly introduced, established and then seperately juggled her groups. I felt I had something clever in my hands the surface of which I was barely scratching.
'Except by prejudice there is no sentiment in the arts banned from expression and no story that cannot be told. The enchantment is in the feeling and in the telling, and that is all
An intriguing book and one that would reveal much with a second read I feel sure, so beyond turning back to page one and starting over, where next with my Siri Hustvedt reading?