What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

whatilovedI’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read.  I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion.  If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.

How to even begin to tell you about this novel?  Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties.  It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend.  We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be.  Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.

More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters.  These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all.  For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here.  If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too.  Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.

In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on

the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again

and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.

As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.

The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first.  It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell.  It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.

I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing.  And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t.  It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.

Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story.  From believing that

Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig

he shifts his position because

[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth

until finally he is forced into the belief that

he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing.  He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that.  Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.

Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence?  As Leo says very early on in the novel

stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life

imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through.  I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more.  For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind.  The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.

I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea.  If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible.  You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.


35 thoughts on “What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

  1. ian darling October 16, 2014 / 10:02 am

    Very interesting and thanks for writing about a novel I would not have known about. “Narrative is a primary act of mind” – that is a quotation I will have to remember because it seems such a key to how fiction works


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:51 pm

      In fact, Ian, Hardy is writing about the way in which we all understand our own lives by turning what happens to us into our own personal narratives, but of course, that is why it is so appropriate to fiction as well.


  2. Margaret @ BooksPlease October 16, 2014 / 12:34 pm

    I read this book some years ago, before I began my blog. At that time I didn’t record what I thought about everything I read, so I’m not sure when it was – it could be as long ago as 2003/4. I remember buying it and reading it avidly, it wasn’t like anything else I’d read before – I just remember that I loved it and that it was about art and artists and there was a mystery So I was keen to read your post and it has made me want to re-read the book – it was so long ago that it’ll probably be like reading it for the first time. I just wish I’d jotted down a few notes the first time!


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:53 pm

      It’s definitely a book that not only bears re-reading, Margaret, but one from which you are bound to get more on a second reading because there is just so much depth to it. It is certainly going to be very high on my list of the best reads I’ve had this year and I’m seriously thinking of putting it on one of my other book group list just so as I have a real reason to make time to read it again.


  3. heavenali October 16, 2014 / 12:57 pm

    Thank you for a fascinating look at this novel. I read it years ago but only really remember that I liked it. I tried her most recent novel and couldn’t get on with it at all.


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:55 pm

      I had a very badly set up e-copy of the most recent one and so didn’t get past the first few pages. It seems to have been a marmite sort of book. Some people have got nowhere with it, others have loved it. At some point I’ll get hold of a print copy and give it a go, but I don’t want to do so too soon in case it takes some of the shine off this one.


    • Denise October 16, 2014 / 10:10 pm

      interesting – I only remember reading it and finding it a bit abstract, and a bit cheated as I’d been expecting that as a book from a well regarded novelist, it would be somehow different… I was younger then, not so much of a serious reader, not so able to “get into” things that were a bit introspective. I wonder what I would make of it now – would I like it, or would I not get on with it?


      • Alex October 19, 2014 / 3:27 pm

        Some of the group did find the first part quite hard to engage with, Denise. Perhaps that coloured your response to the rest of the book.


  4. litlove October 16, 2014 / 2:06 pm

    I read some of this several years ago. I thought it was absolutely brilliantly written, but I had a young child at the time and you will know the part at which I put the book down and couldn’t continue. If Siri Hustvedt hadn’t written it so well, I might have been able to carry on. But alas, she was too good for me to keep going. I read another of her novels, The Sorrows of an American relatively recently and loved that. She is so full of amazing ideas – I love authors who can really make you think.


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:57 pm

      Oh yes! Reading past the beginning of Part Two was hard, very hard. I am going to have to get all her other works now, because I have loved both this and (although a very different sort of book) ‘Summer Without Men’. I’d also like to read her essays which I would imagine are very deep indeed.


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:57 pm

      It’s definitely worth the time and trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Stefanie October 16, 2014 / 2:50 pm

    I’ve meant to try Hustvedt for ages but haven’t managed it yet. I love stories that examine out need for story.I agree that we need stories, we can’t function without them, it is how we make sense of the world.


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:58 pm

      Which is why Mark is such an enigma to everyone who knows him. Someone who operates outside of story is completely alien to the way the rest of us work. He is a very frightening character from that point of view.


  6. beckylindroos October 16, 2014 / 3:48 pm

    I’ve only read Hustvedt’s new one, The Blazing World, but I very much enjoyed it. I’ll have to look for What I Loved – see if I can get a group interested. lol


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 5:59 pm

      I think you’d love this, Becky. I have heard very mixed reports of ‘The Blazing World’ but after this experience I shall definitely be getting hold of a copy and making my own mind up.


  7. Claire 'Word by Word' October 16, 2014 / 5:27 pm

    I’m a little wary of her work, but know that this one is one I definitely want to read, and intended to buy it for a friends b’day knowing it will come back to me to read too. Anyone interested in art likely to enjoy this one i’m sure.


    • Alex October 16, 2014 / 6:01 pm

      Yes, Claire. Two of the people in the group are extremely knowledgeable where art is concerned, having worked in galleries themselves and it has as much to offer to people who are interested in that world as it does to this like me who want to explore what it has to say about the way we relate to narrative.


  8. Bellezza October 17, 2014 / 1:19 am

    It is wonderful how book clubs can open our eyes to books we would perhaps have not found on our own, or better yet, increased understanding of one we have under appreciated. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, although the author’s name seems familiar…didn’t she also have a title on the Man Booker long list? Off to double check.


    • Alex October 19, 2014 / 3:28 pm

      Yes, her most recent novel was on this year’s long list. It has had mixed reviews amongst my friends, however and I think I shall be trying more of her earlier work, and possibly some of her essays, before I move on to that.


  9. Bellezza October 17, 2014 / 1:26 am

    Yes, her novel The Blazing World was on the long list for this year’s Man Booker prize. I checked it out from the library, but didn’t have time to read it with my insane autumn. Glad to have your recommendation of her books, though.


  10. drharrietd October 17, 2014 / 8:07 am

    I’ve never read her. But this does sound amazing, and as you are usually spot on with your reviews, I’m now longing to read it. Excellent review – thanks.


    • Alex October 19, 2014 / 3:29 pm

      I think this is a book you would love, Harriet. It is a committed read because it is so dense, but more than worth the effort.


  11. susanosborne55 October 17, 2014 / 8:46 am

    I’m so pleased that you enjoyed What I Loved, Alex. It’s one of my favourite books – so much in it, and it stands up to a second reading very well. Your excellent review makes me want to read it a third time.


    • Alex October 19, 2014 / 3:30 pm

      I am definitely going to have to find the time to read it again, Susan. I want to check out her essays now because she clearly has a lot to say about the world of Arts and Letters.


  12. Helen October 17, 2014 / 9:31 am

    This is a book I’ve never even thought about reading, but you’ve made me think that I should at least try it. I don’t know much about the art world so it’s good to know that there’s so much more to the book than that.


    • Alex October 19, 2014 / 3:31 pm

      It would be out of your usual run of books, Helen, but it such a good novel that I think it would take you with it.


  13. BookerTalk October 18, 2014 / 6:38 pm

    How true your first comment is – I also have discovered new authors and had my prejudices overturned by taking part in a book club. Ive not read Hustvedt beyond a sample of her latest book. It wasn’t really enough to guage how it would progress unfortunately – have you read it?
    Your comment that “It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.” could have been written about the novel I have just finished reading Please Look After Mom by a South Korean author.


    • Alex October 19, 2014 / 3:32 pm

      I haven’t read the new one, Karen. From what I’ve heard about it it would take an even more dedicated read than this did and while I would definitely be prepared to give it the time and concentration it’s finding that time at the moment.


  14. smithereens October 20, 2014 / 1:01 pm

    I love Hustvedt, she’s one of those writers I know I’ll read about everything she publishes. Her writing is so rich and multi-layered, there’s almost always something that resonates with the reader.


    • Alex October 20, 2014 / 5:37 pm

      Have you read her latest,’Blazing World’, Smithereens? And if so, what did you think of it? It appears to have divided readers in the UK and I haven’t quitter decided whether to get a copy or not.


      • smithereens October 20, 2014 / 7:36 pm

        No I did not… yet. I know a Hustvedt book needs time and concentration. I am waiting till it goes cheaper and that I have some more time, hopefully next year. But I’ll sure get to it somewhere down the line. If you’re undecided, you should perhaps try her shorter and lighter “Summer without men”.


      • Alex October 20, 2014 / 7:38 pm

        I read that with a reading group last year and really enjoyed it. I want to try some of her essays next.


  15. Kat October 21, 2014 / 6:50 pm

    I admired Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American, and was alerted once again to the esteem in which she is held in book circles by the nomination of The Blazing World for the Booker Prize. I completely missed out on this one, and since I love books about academics and the art world, will add this to the list.


    • Alex October 27, 2014 / 10:41 am

      Kat, I think this might be your sort of book. It takes a little while to get into the pace at which it is written but then I like long books that reward patience at the beginning and I think you might as well.


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