Acclaimed writer Siri Hustvedt’s most recent novel, The Summer without Men, fits an amazing degree of plot, character arc and intellectual bite into a small amount of text.
Hustvedt has long since mastered the art of verisimilitude, so much so that she could easily crank out quietly naturalistic masterpieces like Joan London’s The Good Parents (a novel I loved and would recommend) if she chose. Another writer who has achieved the ability to construct a world we can believe in is Susan Johnson, whose Life in Seven Mistakes convinced this reader that the Barton family’s claustrophobic high-rise Gold Coast apartment and the dynamics that occur within it actually existed.
But Hustvedt wants to do more with the novel than produce a constructed version of reality that provides commentary on life only indirectly. She wants to play with its conventions, to stretch the form to its limits, in order to fully let loose her (or her narrator’s) intellectual and social concerns.
Hustvedt is married to the acclaimed US author Paul Auster. This is relevant because it indirectly feeds into the sexual politics of the book, but also because there is a similarity in what both these writers do in their novels despite their very different styles.
Auster long ago mastered a bald but riveting narrative style highly influenced by Raymond Chandler, Hollywood film, and the male tradition of stripping away affect and extraneous details, to produce novels powered by an intriguing, ever-advancing plot line. He was never content to employ this style in the service of narrative drive alone; his works have a postmodern flavour and are often surreal and absurdist. One of his ploys is to insert into the narrative a character who shares his name, suggesting that fiction and ‘real life’ are not diametrically opposed but rather different states on the same continuum, and that the boundary between the two is at best blurred rather than fixed.
The Summer without Men also blurs this boundary and inhabits ‘that threshold world of Almost’, but it does so for reasons that are more overtly political than Auster’s.
The Summer without Men is political at every turn, but, Hustvedt seems to be telling us, it has to be. According to the novel’s narrator, women continue to be misrepresented, ignored and belittled by masculinist ‘experts’ whether scientific or literary. Hustvedt’s response is a politicised version of what someone like Auster, firmly established in the male canon, would do. Thus, she anticipates being boxed in as a ‘female writer’ and then uses this space of assigned femininity to protest the subject position. Indeed, in a world where the likes of VS Naipaul are still making outrageous remarks about women’s writing being second rate because of its ‘sentimentality’, how can a novel by a female writer not be overtly political?
Hustvedt can never write like Paul Auster, because she does not enjoy his privileged position, the fact that he has been able to assume the mantle of great male writer. Yet she can emulate him in another way, similarly blurring the boundaries between the fictional world inside the novel and the ‘reality’ of the outside. (Of course, in the real life interaction between the pair, it’s not clear at all that Hustvedt is emulating anybody – for all we know, Auster’s literary style could always have been powered by Hustvedt’s preoccupations; in a marriage, and especially an intellectual/literary marriage, boundaries between self and other become blurred. The novel itself points this out, and also enacts it; at one point, Mia mentions the title of one of Auster’s novels, referring to him as a ‘prominent American novelist’.)
Hustvedt achieves this boundary-crossing in two ways. First, by deliberately blurring the distinction between herself and the narrator, giving (possibly) some of her own intellectual preoccupations to Mia; and second by making the narrator a highly self-conscious memoirist who constantly and deliberately imports all manner of extraneous intellectual matter into the narrative to support her emotional and intellectual prooccupations.
Hustvedt has a very different style from Auster. The glue of this book is a strongly imagined and dramatic scenario conveyed in naturalistic terms with Romantic overtones in the tradition of Jane Eyre. The heroine and first-person narrator, Mia, a poet and intellectual, goes temporarily insane when Boris, a neuroscientist and her beloved spouse of 30 years, announces that he needs a break from their previously happy marriage in order to pursue an affair with a young colleague that Mia derisively refers to as ‘The Pause’.
After recovering her sanity, Mia returns to the backwater Minnesotan town of her childhood for a summer without men, spending time with her elderly mother and her retirement home buddies, teaching a summer poetry course for female teenagers, and befriending a young family living next door to her rented house.
Naturalism and a conventional plot drive this story forward but it is full of asides, digressions and switches in time sequence. The intellectual Mia quotes the works and ideas of various poets and philosophers, including her own, and muses on human behaviour, the stupidity of stubbornly sexist neuroscientists who continue to seek evidence of women’s innate difference from and inferiority to men and the corresponding epistemological violence that assigns inferiority to the subject matter of female writers. Personal history blends with vivid, concise storytelling and social commentary. The narrator addresses the reader directly as if she were an old friend; the digressions are Mia’s so that she is always relating the story, however she chooses to tell it.
Most importantly Mia refuses to use these intellectual divagations as buffers against the world or intellectual ballast; they are as much a part of her mental and emotional machinery as are her more direct experiences and perceptions, whether banal or profound.
The critic who reviewed this book in The Age newspaper recently was annoyed at its digressions; in fact, they are integral to both the main character and the larger aims of the book. ‘Look’, Hustvedt seems to be saying, ‘my husband playfully inserts himself into his writing and is treated like a genius. If I do it, I’ll be accused of harping, making the personal political, but I’m going to do it anyway (sort of: am I really doing it?).’
Having a first-person narrator who is an intellectual enables Hustvedt to both enact and meditate on the boundaries between novel and the world, the inside and the outside, truth and fiction, reader and writer, the real and the imagined. In making Mia an intellectual and poet, Hustvedt deliberately positions her narrator close in similarity to herself and her own situation. Like Mia, Hustvedt lives with her husband in a New York apartment, one of a pair of ageing members of the intelligentsia in a long, happy marriage; has one child, a daughter who is artistic; is highly educated; and teaches creative writing. Earlier in this piece I’ve assumed that Hustvedt’s choice of intellectual heroine may well mean that Mia is a mouthpiece for her own views; but is this really the case? Simply creating the grounds for such speculation enables the author to bring the humanity and messiness as well as evil and nobility of human life into the novel, itself a feminist move.
At the same time it enables her to question why, in the twenty-first century, such views still need to be advanced in order to expose the extent of literary misogyny, promote female literary genius such as Jane Austen’s, and privilege the role of feeling in everyday life, whose denigration is one tactic of that very misogyny.
Mia’s views are not (perhaps) Hustvedt’s only line of attack against misogynistic lit crit. In her role as author, Hustvedt also frames this book as an indirect attack on the chick lit genre, and the way in which such categories marginalise and denigrate women’s writing. The plot has enough in common with a conventional chick lit plot to be mistaken for it on first picking the book up in a bookstore or library; and the book itself is a trenchant assertion of the primacy of both feeling and creativity if one is to live the good life, or indeed any kind of meaningful life at all (this applies to men too, as Boris discovers). The book further asserts that feeling and intellect are indissoluble, again attacking a cherished misogynistic distinction. Interestingly, the cover on the Australian edition has distinct echoes of chick lit covers.
But in the slippage between Mia and Hustvedt the book also mimics the sister genre of chick lit, the female misery memoir. This is perhaps a wry comment on the spate of confessional memoirs that now crowd bookstores. But it is also a very specific way for Hustvedt to privilege the role of feeling in the world, and the kind of inner life that was so important to the characters of master novelists such as Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen. Mia’s flight to insanity is framed as a temporary, necessary response to an impossible situation: ‘after thirty years of marriage pause was enough to turn me into a lunatic whose thoughts burst, ricocheted and careened into one another’.
In referencing chick lit, however subtly and indirectly, Hustvedt attacks the notion of a separate genre that in itself denigrates women, seeming to anticipate Naipaul’s recent masculinist attack on so-called sentimentality in novels (when he is, in fact, talking about feeling).
But I don’t want to represent this book as mainly concerned with semantic gender wars. In its economical prose The Summer without Men manages to be a trenchant examination of the inner lives of elderly women, a group who are stereotyped in modern culture if they appear at all, and when they do appear are depicted as if they have no inner lives; a sophisticated exploration of the problems of human evil as expressed in the herd behaviour of teenage girls; and a sympathetic portrayal of the ways in which gender politics and the economy affect the welfare of one young family (Mia’s neighbours) in contemporary America. It’s also a celebration of female being and becoming and the simple joys of everyday human life in a way that has echoes of radical feminist writings but goes beyond them to embrace both males and females as imperfect human beings who are, in fact, not so different.
Mia is not a particularly stern judge of human frailty. An important aspect of the book’s examination of sexual politics, literary and otherwise, is the love story between herself and Boris. The 30-year marriage the narrator looks back on is imbued with the imperfections of the quotidian. While Mia wants her husband to be faithful, she values his ability to love her over whether he will do his fair share of chores. In her attitude towards Boris, Mia is ultimately able to demonstrate what Hustvedt believes is too often missing from both modern life in general and masculinist commentary in particular: empathy.
By highlighting this book’s sexual politics and unconventional style I don’t want to give the impression that it’s anything but highly readable – The Summer without Men is engrossing, witty and sometimes caustically funny. Mia’s outraged, lively and embodied storytelling and her intellectual excursions produce wonderful opportunities for mordant humour. This is a book to savour.