You can’t get there from here

Benjamin Markovits

  • What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
    Sceptre, 370 pp, £14.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 340 68237 X

In Siri Hustvedt’s first novel, The Blindfold, a young woman is hospitalised by the combined forces of an unhappy love affair, an artist’s photograph of her, and her translation of an early 20th-century German novella – this is plausible enough, to Hustvedt’s credit. Her plots depend on the occult power of art and the frailty of our ordinary healthy relation to the world. Sex plays its part in both. What I Loved deals in the lives of critics, painters, academics, writers: people who possess what has been called the leisure of the theory classes. It’s also a book about a couple of couples who together have children, grow old and become unhappy. The worries about art and about life inevitably overlap, and Hustvedt asks two simple and serious questions: can art help us to understand our lives? And can it change them for the better?

Leo Hertzberg, a middle-aged art historian at Columbia, tells the story, and though he plays a part in the events he relates, he is a passive narrator, at one remove from the life he describes, describing it to bridge the gap, affirming the gap by building the bridge. His age, for one thing, keeps him apart: he is 11 years older than his wife, Erica, a nervy sexy lit. professor at Rutgers, who first stumbled into his life of research round the blind corner of a bookshelf, and knocked his glasses off. Library cards are the driver’s licence of the academic – the ID you need to sit next to girls. ‘My degree came from Harvard, hers from Columbia, which explained why she was wandering in the stacks that Saturday morning with an alumni pass.’ They ‘emigrate’ together from the Upper West Side, which smells of their unhappy German Jewish roots – ‘death’ and ‘antiseptic and hospitals and stale Sachertorte’ – to boho SoHo, and a loft on Greene Street between Canal and Grand. Leo wanders into a gallery on Prince Street, and buys the only painting he likes, of ‘a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room’, with a small yellow New York taxi-cab in her hand; a shadow falls across her, and another woman’s foot and ankle are leaving the picture. ‘To the right of the canvas I read the small typed card: Self-Portrait by William Wechsler.’

Everybody who will matter in the story, apart from the children, is involved with the picture: Bill Wechsler paints it; Violet, Bill’s lover and model, is shown centre-stage in it; Lucille, his poet wife, exits the frame quietly, with only an ankle in view; Leo buys it; and he and Erica discuss it. Leo looks up the artist in his studio loft on the Bowery – street names play as prominent a role in the novel as the artists and philosophers constantly under discussion. Their friendship is launched when Leo jokes, on his way out, that he had thought for a moment that the shadows across the painting were his own; Bill answers ‘they can be yours, too’ and grips his arm. He has ‘glamour – that mysterious quality of attraction that seduces strangers’; he’s tall and good-looking, careless and concentrated at once, and gives off an ‘irresistible’ air of ‘autonomy’. In that first meeting they discuss Jan Steen, Zurbarán’s Saint Francis, Grünewald’s Christ, Boucher’s nudes, Pontormo’s Mannerism, R. Crumb’s ‘Tales from the Land of Genitalia’, Gogol, George Grosz, Cézanne, Vietnam, Yale. And though Bill happily takes part in these intellectual discussions and later quotes Tristram Shandy at length, they are divided by the line that separates the critic from the artist, as in the old joke about the eunuch in the harem. Leo knows what art is, and has seen it done, but he just can’t do it himself.

The writing is uneven, though that isn’t quite the right word; rather, Hustvedt’s consistent style produces ups and downs she doesn’t seem able to distinguish – a consequence of taking everything seriously. Henry Hasseborg, a shambling and vindictive art critic who plays a minor role, is an ‘unscrupulous man’ but also an intelligent one, ‘and in New York that combination could take you far.’ Only in New York? Erica, discovered weeping on a sofa one afternoon, explains that ‘life is sad. I’ve been sitting here thinking about how sad it all is.’ She has her reasons: pregnancy, an unhappy dream, the state of foster care in New York and the ‘indecipherable work of Jacques Lacan’. Lucille picks at the same thought. She shows Leo one of her poems (her verbs, according to her husband, are ‘excellent’):

A woman sits by the window. She thinks
And while she thinks, she despairs
She despairs because she is who she is
And not somebody else.

Lucille’s simpler account is nearer the mark. But, in the general insistence on meaningfulness, it’s hard after a while to tell what’s true and what matters from what isn’t and doesn’t. Bill’s last painting of Violet shows her unnaturally emaciated and with a jumble of shoes on the floor behind her. When Leo asks if they referred ‘to the death camps, he said yes, and we talked about Adorno for over an hour. The philosopher had said there could be no art after the camps.’ Leo was born in Berlin, and his father lost most of his family in the Holocaust; but there’s a glibness to his artistic references that sits ill with the heaviness of the subjects. You can’t get there from here, the farmer from Maine once explained to a traveller who asked for directions. Art, it seems, can get anywhere from anywhere.

There’s something about these critics, academics, painters, poets – their intimate and humourless and unashamedly literate discourse – that might strike an English reader as too American and an American as too New York. And yet, slowly, the artistic and literary accumulations of detail – the thoughts and other knick-knacks Hustvedt’s characters pick up along the way and self-consciously reassemble – gather weight. The book opens with the series of five letters Violet wrote to Bill after he decided to return to his wife to raise their child together. They persuade him to abandon both again. Leo discovers them later among Bill’s books, and keeps them in a drawer of his desk for their memories of Bill and the titillation of Leo’s own unrealised fantasies about Violet. They sit among other curious mementos – a pocket knife, a burned scrap of cardboard from a doughnut box, various photographs. What I Loved is a record of these items’ significance. Hustvedt has done the hard and dirty work of joining her facts together, even if she paints them afterwards in a coat of sentiment. ‘When I held the letters in my hands, I felt they had the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again . . . When I put the letters down, I knew that I would start writing this book today.’

The novel is split into three sections. The first is an account of the befriended couples, suffering together the ordinary vicissitudes of love and work, and each raising a son: Matt, the slow but conscientious child of Leo and Erica; and Mark, the quick-witted and charming son of Bill and Lucille, who splits his time between his mother’s and Violet’s homes. The ordinary vicissitudes end when Matt dies on a camping trip (I think I might have preferred the ordinary story to go on), and the rest of the book is taken up by the disappointments of children. The second part describes the break-up of Leo and Erica’s marriage, along the lines of Frost’s ‘Home Burial’: a father who hates both the show of mourning in his wife, and the emotional drought that prevents his own; a mother who cannot stomach her husband’s dry grief. Erica accuses Leo of withdrawing:

‘I remember what you said about your father – the way he was after he found out about his family. You said: “He went still.”’

I didn’t move. I kept my eyes on the wall. ‘He had a stroke.’

‘Before the stroke. You said it happened before the stroke.’

I saw my father in his chair. His back was to me as he sat in front of the fireplace. I nodded before I looked at Erica. When our eyes met, I saw that she was half-smiling and half-crying. ‘I’m not saying it’s over between us, Leo. I want to come visit you if you’ll let me. I’d like to write to you and tell you what I’m doing.’

Erica takes a job in California, and gradually fades from the story. In spite of their intellectual familiarity with grief, their marriage can’t survive it when it comes. She insists that they communicate only in writing, hoping that an artistic account of their feelings might eventually reconcile them: ‘This will be our law – that we write our dailiness and our suffering very, very carefully.’ But art fails them: it describes and suggests but can’t persuade. And Leo worries more over the facts than their construction: are her letters hiding another man?

But art opens some doors. Bill starts exhibiting boxes filled with paintings and everyday things: objects intended to play off each other, like the mementos in Leo’s drawer. Hustvedt’s prose tries to achieve the same effect. Leo teaches a class on Chardin’s Glass of Water and a Coffee Pot and finds himself ‘staring down at the glass of water in the picture’:

I moved very close to it. The strokes were visible. I could see them plainly. A precise quiver of the brush had made light. I swallowed, breathed, heavily, and choked . . . ‘The water,’ I said in a low voice. ‘The glass of water is very moving to me.’ I looked up and saw the surprised faces of my students. ‘The water is a sign of . . .’ I paused. ‘The water seems to be a sign of absence.’

He remembers the ‘hundreds of glasses of water’ he had brought to Matt’s bedside, and reflects that ‘a real glass of water had not once reminded me of my son, but the image of a glass of water rendered 230 years earlier had catapulted me suddenly and irrevocably into the painful awareness that I was still alive.’ If the ease and unreason of artistic reference allows art to play too lightly with heavy facts – enables a tumble of shoes to stand in for the Holocaust – it can also, perhaps because of these same qualities, occasionally disarm our unwillingness to face such facts. But beyond that, nothing changes, and Leo keeps the appointed rounds of his loneliness.

The book gets steadily weirder. The last third is taken up with the psychopathology of Mark, the surviving child. Leo offers Mark his dead son’s bedroom as a studio for the collages that he has begun to make. Mark, a handsome, clever child who does badly in school, understands the subtext and happily agrees to keep ‘Uncle’ Leo company. A box of doughnuts goes missing one weekend, and Leo asks Mark if he has seen them anywhere; the boy hasn’t. Later, an angry neighbour drags Mark in from the roof, where he’d been lighting a fire with her son. Mark claims he was only looking on, and admits he shouldn’t have. Leo later discovers a burned scrap of the missing doughnut box, and keeps it, without confronting the boy – out of a premonition that a strict regard for evidence would matter more and more in dealings with the child. This is the kind of detail Hustvedt does very well: the lie, its pointlessness (Leo meant to give Mark the doughnuts anyway), its partial resolution, its suggestion of things to come.

What follows is a kind of Grimms’ fairytale told backwards: a child’s story to terrify the parents. Mark starts out with lies and thefts, moves quickly on to raves; and soon finds himself running around with the very worst artist in New York – the enfant terrible Teddy Giles and his androgynous gang of slumming debutantes and homeless waifs. A child can draw on deep reserves of being misunderstood by his parents. That’s part of the horror Hustvedt taps, in describing the general decline of a society fixated on children fixated on themselves (what Mark most wanted from life was for ‘people to like him’); and, more broadly, the awful empty liberty that comes from a final cutting adrift from truthfulness. Her stepson’s troubles bring home Violet’s own intellectual concerns: she is a sociologist who studies the history of psychological epidemics from hysteria to anorexia. The characters’ professional interests begin to manifest themselves, malignly, in their daily lives, in the same way that you suddenly start to notice cars of the same model as the one you’ve just bought. Teddy Giles and Mark Wechsler share something of the anarchic energy seen in A Clockwork Orange and American Psycho, though in both those books the free-falling heroes tell their own stories. Mark’s is told by a concerned middle-aged academic, so we don’t get an inside look at what it’s like to have no inside. ‘You understand that it isn’t the stealing that’s so terrible or even the lying. It’s the pretence of compassion, so perfectly modulated, so believable, so authentic.’ As Teddy Giles later explains, ‘we all like to feel real.’

Despite Hustvedt’s careful attention to detail, the plot gets away from her at the end, and takes her too far from the ordinary version of New York sophistication we started with. There’s a cross-country chase, past various grand symbols of American commercialism, and a physical confrontation. It’s hard to see why a story of five friends and their married lives gives way to an obsession with a child who won’t stop telling lies, other than that the two halves of the novel are connected by worries about art. Teddy Giles plays on the conventions of media violence: he sculpts massacres with mannequins, and spreads rumours about less artistic murders, themselves a form of performance art. The trouble is that art isn’t something you can disprove, and Leo can’t quite argue his way past Giles’s use of artistic reference, any more than he can explain the virtues of Bill Wechsler’s. You can get anywhere from anywhere in art, and this is part of the reason Mark and Teddy are so hard to pin down. ‘I’m not interested in meaning,’ Giles says. ‘I have to tell you, I don’t think it’s very important anymore.’ Of course, none of this is terribly sophisticated, and Leo knows it. But there’s little he can do to make his case except point towards what will survive, and wait.