What I Didn’t Love About Siri Hustvedt’s Novel

What I Loved is largely based on real life events. Katie Roiphe pens a kill-joy article blasting The New York Observer’s Joe Haden for tracking the correspondences between the novel and events in the author’s life. Roiphe boringly concludes her diatribe by instructing us that

Novels should be read and loved and hated for what they are, not for what they are “thinly veiling.” Let those who want to read tabloids read tabloids. And let writers worry about their own personal lives.

I won’t quibble with Roiphe’s issues with Haden’s ad hominem interpretation of the novel. More importantly, the key word in Roiphe’s school marm lecture is “hated.” What I Loved, based on real life events or not, is a terrible novel. I will say, however, that it’s ironic that Roiphe would take issue with a gossipy reading of a novel when it was so clearly written by Ms. Husvedt in order to spread gossip about her husband’s — Paul Auster — ex-wife, Lydia Davis. Davis is an author in her own right, thinly veiled in the novel as Lucille Alcott. Hustvedt hates her guts.

Almost every other character is a thinly veiled Hustvedt. This includes Violet, her clearest avatar, and extends to the narrator, Leo Hertzberg, as well as his seizure prone wife, Erica. “Visual artist,” Bill Weschler, who is meant to be Paul Auster, is so clearly a slave to the influence of Violet that we might as well add him to the list as well.

As a narrator, Leo is completely absurd. A German-Jewish refugee as a child, he grew up into a mild-mannered art historian who bonds with Bill Weschler over his unrecognized art. A New Yorker for most of his life, the camps are Leo’s true spiritual home, where he spends a great deal of his mental life visiting relatives he has not met but who died at the hands of the Nazis. He also spends pages of the novel sitting up at night watching other characters breathe as they sleep, a reliable indicator of his deepness and alienation. Sometimes, when the others sleep and he bores with watching them breathe, Leo pulls out photographs of these relatives he never met and mootly imagines what these people would have been like had they lived.

Leo forces the reader to endure meandering abstracts on book projects he envisions writing, such as one dedicated to Goya. Not only that, but he rambles on for pages about Erica and Violet’s book projects. Leo’s primary object of meditation is Bill’s art which becomes the nexus for Violet’s obsessions. Occasionally, Bill’s art integrates insights he obtains from Erica and Leo, however, their work becomes so overdetermined by Violet that you’d almost begin to imagine that these characters represent the same person!

At first Bill is a painter, but upon meeting Violet, a graduate student at Columbia University where she, like everyone else, is writing a dissertation on Charcot, Women and Hysteria, he branches out into installation art and bases his new work on Violet’s unedited dissertation. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Charcot’s female patients or hysteria; Leo basically includes Violet’s dissertation for the reader. Hustvedt’s analyses of these fictional installation pieces, which themselves are based on a fictional dissertation, are utterly excruciating. One wonders if it ever occurred to her that spending pages obsessing over the details of imaginary art pieces might be a bad idea, especially if the art itself sounds so obnoxious.

In August, Erica and I were invited to look at three of the finished hysteria pieces on the Bowerey… Erica found a door in the first box and opened it. Drawing close to her, I peeked into a small room, harshly lit by a miniature ceiling lamp that shone on an old black-and-white photograph that had been pasted to the far wall. It showed a woman’s head and torso from behind. The word SATAN had been written in large letters on the skin between her shoulder blades. In front of the photo was the image of another woman kneeling on the ground. She had been painted on heavy canvas and then cut out. For her exposed back and arms, Bill had used pearly, idealized flesh tones reminiscent of Titian. The nightgown she had pulled over her shoulders was the palest of blues. The third figure in the room was a man, a small wax sculpture. He stood over the cutout woman with a pointer, like the ones used in geography classes, and seemed to be tracing something onto her skin–a crude landscape of a tree, a house, and a cloud.

Erica withdrew her head and said to Violet, “Dermagraphism.”

“Yes, they wrote on them,” Bill said to me. “The doctors traced their bodies with a blunt instrument and the words or pictures would appear in their skin. Then they took photographs of the writing.”

In case you were wondering how many pages it would take Leo to “unearth the association” between the “Dermagraphism” in Bill’s Violet-flavored hysteria art with the numbers tattooed on concentration camp victims, it takes 14. After this revelation, Leo wakes up to observe Erica sleep and breathe.

For a good portion of those 14 pages, we readers are treated to another analysis of one of Bill’s hilariously awful installation pieces, this time involving cutouts of Hansel and Gretel, show-casing their childhood thinness and adolescent weight gain (uncoincidentally, Violet is now writing about the cultural history of eating disorders. Guess what? Eating disorders have something to do with caving to societal pressure).

I can only imagine that the moral of these descriptions is that one can create shitty art even without an MFA. Sadly, the unfortunate exposition probably has more to do with Hustvedt’s narcissism, which itself has a theoretical component. One of the great themes of the novel is that the artist is both the subject and object of his own work. Moreover, the subjective viewer is made into an object by an art object. This is not so much a “theme” as it is the explanation given to every work of art described in the novel. It’s what every artist and critic in the novel says about the art discussed therein. It’s the basis for Leo’s description of Bill’s art, Goya’s art, etc. It’s also Violet’s thesis regarding hysteria as well as her thesis regarding eating disorders. It’s the same as Leo’s thesis regarding Lucille’s poems and pretty much the basis for Erica’s work on Henry James.

The blatant obviousness of this could yield a fantastic critique of the contemporary art and academic worlds — about how little the cognoscenti actually know — if it weren’t clear that the author is deeply invested in this insight. Hustvedt has in fact inserted herself into not only the character of Violet but also into the narrator, Leo, so that every time Leo encounters Violet he describes how his gaze lingered on her neckline. Luckily for Leo, Violet constantly wears low-cut negligees in his presence. Even though Hustvedt is trapped as both her own subject and object, her narcissism at least allows this dialectical prison to be a gilded one.

“Descartes was wrong,” announces Violet at Leo. “It isn’t: I think therefore I am. It’s: I am because you are. That’s Hegel–well, the short version.” If that weren’t painful enough, this moment of philosophical epiphany telegraphs Leo’s renewed sexual interest in his wife upon witnessing a colleague fucking a student.

I might take Leo’s impotence more seriously if Hustvedt could accurately capture a man’s narrative voice. Seeing Bill carry Violet over the threshold causes Leo to muse, “I felt my masculinity pale a little beside vigorous Uncle Bill’s.” That night he sits up and watches Erica breathe some more. Again. For one, no man would phrase such a statement in the first person like that. It might have been a more convincing passage if written in a free and indirect style. Unfortunately, Hustvedt is a big fan of power exposition. Not only do we get the endless academic abstracts presented by Leo, but the characters themselves power exposit. Take for example Violet’s explanation of what she does all day in Bill’s studio, dressed in his clothes, now that Bill himself has died (passive aggressively out of disappointment in his rogue of a son):

Violet’s eyes narrowed. “I read,” she said in a fierce voice. “First I put on Bill’s work clothes and then I read. I read all day. I read from nine in the morning until six at night. I read and read and read until I can’t see the page anymore.”

Which also, apparently, describes Hustvedt’s writing method.

The final third of the novel deals with Bill’s son, Mark Weschler (or Auster’s son, however you’ll have it), his delinquency and drug addiction. Mark falls in with a Marilyn Manson type performance artist named Teddy Giles. Both Teddy and Mark lead Leo on a cross-country hunt so that Leo can take Mark home to Violet. It also provides Leo an opportunity to emotionally climax when he confronts Mark about his complicity in permitting Teddy to desecrate Bill’s art (specifically, a painting of Mark from when he was a baby).

“That painting was better than you are, Mark. It was more real, more alive, more powerful than you have ever been or will ever be. You are the thing that’s ugly, not that painting. You’re ugly and empty and cold. You’re something your father would hate.” I was breathing loudly through my nose. My rage overwhelmed. I made an effort to gain control of it.

At this point, there are numerous things Mark could say in response to that inane, Modernist, tirade that would utterly redeem him in my eyes. He says none of those things. Instead he states the obvious. “Uncle Leo,” Mark simpered, “that’s mean.” And with that I totally lose sympathy for each and everyone of these idiots. This answer further enrages Leo, whose back spasms. Teddy shows up to jabber about acupuncture and chiropractors, causing readers to rightly wonder why we’re not out getting massages instead of reading this tripe. Teddy leads Leo to the hotel room he shares with Mark, and just when you think something truly perverse is going to happen, Hustvedt disappoints us again by only having Teddy rough Leo up a little to “put some color” in his cheeks. The decision to make Leo a survivor of the German-Jewish exile from the Nazis suddenly makes sense, as it becomes clear that skinny, emo, Teddy can only seem “dangerous” to someone well into his seventies.

I sought out this book for the inherent literary gossip, thinking I’d found a spiritual sister to Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. No such luck, but I do recommend reading it. There’s so much more to mock, I urge you pick this up and find some of these little gems on your own because I haven’t even scratched the surface.


2 Responses to “What I Didn’t Love About Siri Hustvedt’s Novel”

  1. Zed Says:

    I’d almost forgotten how miserable that ekphrasis was. It is a fun novel, though. If SH weren’t so midwestern and discreet it could have the same train-wreck charm as Chris Kraus.(Re: Narcissism — When Auster met Hustvedt she was a grad student at Columbia working part time as a model.)

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    Doesn’t every grad student at Columbia work their way through school as either a model or stripper, or both? It really is a fun novel. She has an eye for the unnecessary, annoying, detail that really throws one out of the reading. That’s not a bad thing. It makes the whole experience incredibly entertaining as you’re almost forced to ask the book “what on earth do you think you’re doing?”

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