Sunday, April 27, 2014

It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it

A book is a collaboration between the one who reads and what is read, and at its best, that coming together is a love story like any other.
The Summer without Men, by Siri Hustvedt, was not at all what I expected it to be; it pales against my memory of her What I Loved (which I consider to be one of the best books I've ever read), as well as against my personal expectation of the liberation that an actual summer without men might entail.

It definitely leans toward angry feminist rather than ditzy chick lit. The narrator seems to hold that you have to act like a man — in work, love, whatever — to make it in a man's world. But perhaps by the end of the summer she learns that women can assert themselves in much more effective, subversive ways.

This is the summer of Mia, whose husband of 30 years is taking a Pause from their marriage, in the form of a bright young French thing.

At this news, Mia suffered a breakdown:
Insanity is a state of profound self-absorption. An extreme effort is required just to keep track of one's self, and the turn toward wellness happens the moment a bit of the world is allowed back in, when a person or thing passes through the gate.
She spends time with her mother and her cohort at the seniors' residence.
The Five lived in a ferocious present because unlike the young, who entertain their finality in a remote, philosophical way, these women knew that death was not abstract.
She teaches a summer poetry workshop to a gang of 13-year-olds. It doesn't go easily.
Perception is laden with visible differences, with light and shadow and object masses and moving bodies, but also always there are invisible differences and similarities, ideas that draw the lines, separate, isolate, identify. I was, am kinda different. Not one of the gang. Outside, always outside.
Mia has plenty of time to reflect on her marriage.
This is not the voluntary blindness of new attraction; it is the blindness of an intimacy wrought from years of parallel living, both from its bruises and its balms.
There's a shoutout to Hustvedt's real-life husband:
Correlation is not cause. It is just "the music of chance," as one prominent American novelist has phrased it.
It's a very thoughtful and thought-provoking novel.
What do we know about people really? What the hell do we know about anyone?
There are several philosophical asides, with reference to Kant and Hegel, Socrates and Kierkegaard, and Meister Eckhart.
We are not only receivers of the world; we also actively produce it.
The poetry classes are pretty terrific, rich with how the young experience their worlds, how their worlds are transformed into poetry.
It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it; it is shapeless; an inchoate procession of words and things, and let us be frank: We never recover what was. Most of it vanishes.
It's a well-crafted novel, but for all its interesting bits, as a whole it's a little clinical. Told by Mia, the academic poet, it's fairly emotionless; the tone could be read as being consistent with Mia's character. Mia's poetry, scattered throughout, is pretty awful.

I read on, but more to see what else there might be on Rilke, what more of one old lady's secret embroideries, or what else the adolescent poets might devise, rather than out of any feeling for Mia and how her marriage might turn out.
I didn't move for a few minutes. I stood there with my bare feet in the warm grass and felt immeasurably sad. All at once, I felt sad for the whole lot of us human beings, as if I had suddenly been transported skyward and, like some omniscient narrator in a nineteenth-century novel, were looking down on the spectacle of flawed humanity and wishing things could be different, not wholly different, but different enough to spare some of us a little pain here and there. This was a modest wish, surely, not some utopian fantasy, but the wish of a same narrator who shakes her red head with its slices of gray and mourns deeply, mourns because it is right to mourn the endless repetitions of meanness and violence and pettiness and hurt. And so I mourned until the door opened, and my three neighbors emerged from the house and came across the lawn, and I took them in.
Read an excerpt.

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