What must it be like to be left by one’s partner after years of marriage? It’s a subject that’s often addressed in novels, but my impression is that these novels tend to be written by women. (I’d like to be wrong about this.) Men are the ones who up and leave, and, in the world of fiction at least, they rarely do so unaided. The other woman is usually younger, and rarely has much of a voice, unless she’s the one whose novel it is, in which case it’s the abandoned wife who’s obliged to take the back seat, hovering in a doleful or malevolent way slightly out of frame. Men don’t get left so often, in novels at least; women’s mid-life crises seem to express themselves in other ways, perhaps because the supply of younger men is less plentiful than that of their female counterparts, perhaps because the men who do get left find other subjects for their fiction that wound their egos a little less. Because surely men are abandoned and betrayed? Sometimes? And not only by other men? Maybe they just don’t want to talk about it for reasons of amour propre. The proper subject of fiction lies elsewhere. I’m sure VS Naipaul would have something to say on the matter, though I’m not sure I’d want to hear it.
So what does a (female) novelist do with all this? This tangle of clichés about the nature of love and relationships and age? This tired, over-worked allotment of resentment and loss, of – at worst – self-justification and – at best – misdirected empathy and guilt? Succumb? Subvert? Or simply dig deeper in the hope that something that hasn’t been said already might manage to make itself heard? Because it’s hard not to feel that unhappily married couples may be almost as similar, in the end, as happy families are supposed to be. How does a novelist make her (or his) failed marriage feel different?
This is the task that Siri Hustvedt has set herself in The Summer without Men, the third novel I’ve read by her, which is, I suppose, a recommendation in itself. The first – What I Loved – impressed me very much, and left me with a lasting sense of a full-blooded peopled world, of conflict and the fleetingness of anything but partial resolution. The portrait it contains of a socially gifted but irredeemably wayward child/young adult and the repercussions of that on the family was particularly resonant, and the part of the novel that dealt with this, which struck me as the heart of the work, achieved a vivid page-turning quality and emotional tension that sacrificed none of the sheer intelligence informing the earlier sections. As a whole, the book stayed with me far longer than I’d expected it to as I read it; too often, the obverse is true.
The second – The Sorrows of an American – had powerful moments, but left me with less. Narrated, like What I Loved, by a man, its narrative hinges on a secret waiting to be revealed, but there’s what feels like a growing lack of investment in what that secret might be and the heft it might have in the lives of the other protagonists, so that the moment of revelation, when it finally arrives, has a so-what feel to it. There’s a worthiness to the whole proceedings, if that isn’t too damning a word for the moral attention in which the book is dipped, a sort of watching one’s step that’s no doubt part and parcel of Hustvedt’s own milieu, but that finally leaves one wanting something a little more rough-edged and spontaneous. There are times her work reminds me of Woody Allen’s Interiors before Maureen Stapleton arrives and blasts through all those subtle neutral shades with her wonderfully vulgar blood-red dress, and this echo isn’t only down to the New York setting. Hustvedt’s world is filled with passion but there’s a sense in which it’s being filtered too effectively through the double sieve of intellect and an all-encompassing aesthetic. Even the narrator’s tenant’s stalker is a performance artist, as though there were no other way to arrive at the truth than to act it out in some recognisably creative way, and the whole book is fraught with worries about notions of truth and representation that make it, finally, rather more etiolated and emotionally wan than it should be. A small girl provides a source of warmth that tends to get lost elsewhere, and it’s noticeable that Hustvedt’s good with children, who maybe have more room to move and fewer existential constraints.
The Summer without Men is the only one of the three novels I’ve read to have a female narrator, and it’s posited, as the title implies, on the distancing – or self-distancing – of men. The narrator’s husband has left her for a younger woman, ironically referred to as the Pause, and Mia finds herself single, for a summer or possibly longer. She moves to the town where her mother lives, in a care home, with other old women and sets up a poetry workshop for a group of teenage girls. This symmetry – age, youth – is typical of the way Hustvedt proceeds; there’s also a distorted mirror of her own situation in the house next door to hers. Even the simplicity of the narrator’s name seems to draw attention to its anagrammatic potential (Aim? AIM? I am?). The novel assembles its various facets as the same essential stories, of love and of love betrayed, of friendships and power, are spun before us. It’s as programmatic as its predecessor, but doesn’t feel it. There’s a surge of emotion that carries the book forward, and Mia’s constant self-analysis, a given in any Hustvedt novel, is adroitly undermined by her – and our – awareness of just how much there is that’s concealed, unknowable or only knowable in part. This element of the novel is made explicit by two strands, Mia’s initially disturbing and then wearyingly philosophical email correspondence with someone referred to as Mr Nobody and the work of one of her mother’s friends, a woman called Abigail, an embroiderer who subverts and illuminates her art in a surprising way. I’m not sure about the plausibility of Mr Nobody and the role he plays,and even the secret embroidery might seem too neat an objective correlative to the novel and its issues, but the sheerly lovable character of Abigail provides an emotional depth the novel might otherwise lack, and there’s much here about the way we construct – and are constructed by – our own narratives that rings profoundly true. It also provides – unsurprisingly for Hustvedt – a knowing commentary on the sort of fiction it is, and comes to the following conclusion:
There are tragedies and there are comedies, aren’t there? And they are often more the same than different, rather like men and women, if you ask me. A comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.
Which is exactly what Hustvedt does.