Friday, 25 March 2011

Siri Hustvedt: The Summer Without Men

Siri Hustvedt’s recently-published novel The Summer Without Men (Henry Holt, Sceptre, hardback, also Kindle) tells the story of the survival of a 30-year-old marriage through a brief and sudden experience of loss and breakdown which leads to a realization of personal integrity. This happens not only in terms of individual experience but also in a broader context that encompasses the generations, from childhood to extreme old age. It’s a moving narrative that is unpretentious in its determination to get to the truth. The style is episodic, at times impressionistic, occasionally making a transition to poetry. It has a place for humour, irony and dry observation, yet also carries a voice that is straightforward and sincere. The evocation of Norwegian-American Minnesota, with it communities, its libraries, its care homes for the elderly and its study groups for children, is delicately and skilfully done. The central theme is the interweaving of life and art, of reality and fiction. At a book club discussion, the participants don’t distinguish between them, regarding “the characters inside books exactly the way they regard the characters outside books. The facts that the former are made of the alphabet and the latter of muscle, tissue, and bone are of little relevance.”

In a sense the book can be seen as a homage by Mia, the novel’s heroine (and by implication the author herself) to “that coy but passionate genius, the Danish philosopher who has been irking and unsettling and bewildering her for years.” As one of Mia’s anonymous correspondents writes: “Who would deny us the mere pantomime of frenzy? We, the actors who pace back and forth on a stage no one watches, our guts heaving and our fists flying?”

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