Charlotte's Web

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Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

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Charlotte Otter in Paris*

Last night I had the honour of hearing Siri Hustvedt read from and talk about the ideas that informed her new novel The Summer Without Men. Heidelberg doesn’t get many visits from major literary celebrities and Hustvedt is up there in my top five favourite authors, so despite having a husband out of town, babysitters canceling at the seventeenth hour, a parking snarfu in the city centre, I made it, clutching my little blue ticket like Charlie gaining admittance to the chocolate factory.

It was worth it. Siri is razor-sharp, witty and incisive. She read sections from the book in English, which a local actress then read in German.

The Summer Without Men – which I haven’t finished yet, but am savouring like a delicious treat – is the story of Mia, a poet whose scientist husband Boris decides he needs a pause after thirty years of marriage.

“The Pause was French with limp but shiny brown hair. She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses, and an excellent mind. She was young, of course, twenty years younger than I was, and my suspicion is that Boris had lusted after his colleague for some time before he lunged at her significant regions.”

Mia goes mad for a short time, a Brief Psychotic Disorder her doctors call it, and then retreats home to her mother in Minnesota, where she spends a summer in the republic of women, a summer without men.

Vital to the novel is the word “pause”. Boris does not request a stop because he wants to “keep the narrative open, in case he changed his mind.” Hustvedt said last night that the novel itself is a pause in the life of the character, the place between Crazy Winter and Sane Fall.

She also said that this was her first attempt at comedy. Comedy is subversive and she was trying to subvert and resist the idea that “the imagination and intellect of women is inferior to the imagination and intellect of men”. Men and women walk around with this unconscious prejudice and she was attempting to unpick it.

Her main tool in doing so was irony. “The tone is the thing. This is a banal situation. But Anna Karenina is banal. So is Madame Bovary. Just because it is a banal story, told with irony, doesn’t mean it is without feeling.” Later, when the moderator suggested that irony emancipates, she agreed, “Totally!” And later, “Where would we be without it?”

I haven’t reached this part yet, but during her summer, Mia takes herself on an intellectual journey through literature, science and philosophy, trying to find a “territory of ammunition” where she can understand what has happened to her. Hustvedt described this as a dance, one in which she herself is also engaged. She talked in detail about how the science of the gendered brain is being undermined, saying that the brain is plastic and changes according to experience. “The idea that women think differently is untenable.” She was not dismissing neurobiology, only saying that it was full of unconscious perceptions about women and much of of these prejudices go unacknowledged.

Her conclusion was that there is a small biological difference between the sexes and not much more. Both Hustvedt and her narrator come to realise that what is important is only “how much difference that difference makes and how we choose to frame it.”

It was all  highly interesting, especially as Hustvedt operates in a literary milieu that damns women’s writing as domestic, while men’s writing is of course about the human condition. If the floor had been opened to questions, this was what I was planning to ask her, but I feel that she answered me anyway: to reverse the stereotypes and prejudices about women, gender and difference we must talk, subvert, mock, play and use irony. We shouldn’t be frighten to question received ideas in literature, science and philosophy and re-present them for our own use. There are many examples of this in The Summer Without Men, but the best is that of a certain Renaldus Columbus, who in 1559 – to the stupefecation of many women – was credited with discovering the clitoris.

To this, Mia pens a limerick:

“When Columbus spied the Mount of bliss,

He stopped and asked himself, “What is this?”

A button, a pea?

An anomaly?

No, silly man, it’s a clitoris!”

It was a fabulous and dazzling evening, only slightly spoilt by the moderator, who had clearly decided not to plan any questions in advance and think on his feet. As a result, he came across as woolly, pompous and arrogant. Which in the light of what Hustvedt is saying about gendered perceptions of intelligence is rather ironic.

*On her tour of Europe, Siri Hustvedt did a reading at Shakespeare and Company in Paris

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

7 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

  1. Wow, Charlotte, this book sounds amazing. I’ve read one of her books before and loved it (I like her more than her husband). And for you to hear her in Heidelberg too. Fantastic!

  2. Ah, so you did make it. The reviews have been mixed, but glad you like it.

  3. This sounds absolutely delightful. I’m putting it on my list. Thanks!

  4. As you know, I want to readalong with this one. How wonderful to see Siri Hustvedt! I’ll bet she was amazing. Have you read her memoir about the nervous trouble she developed occasionally when public speaking and would shake from the neck down? It’s called The Shaking Woman; A history of my nerves, and it’s most intriguing. But sounds like she didn’t suffer from it in Heidelberg!

  5. What a great event. I don’t know Hustvedt, but now am thoroughly intrigued. I recently read an interview with Allison Pearson, author of “I Don’t Know How She Does It”, who talked about her shock and anger at her book being dubbed “chick lit.” She felt it was serious writing that now had been given a big downgrade. That’s the problem, though, for any of us. If you write about women, especially in proximity to home, hearth and office, it’s hard to keep your book out of that genre, and for it to not feel like a downgrade of sorts.

  6. You always make me feel like a very lazy feminist Charlotte, but that’s a good thing, trust me!

    On this topic, it’s always seemed to me that women writers are quite hesitant when faced with the task of writing about the inner workings of the male mind in fiction…but many of the ‘great’ male writers haven’t, it seems, had such qualms when writing about women.

    Do women writers have a greater awareness of their own limitations in perspective (which male writers should, but don’t always seem to, share) or simply less confidence? Or as indicated by Siri above, are we wrong to think there are more than minor differences between the two?

    Okay, I’m going to go and stick my head back in the sand now. Hope you’re having success with the horrible paperwork you mentioned in your last post.

  7. Pingback: The Summer Without Men – Siri Hustvedt | Oh Waily Waily

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