Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Siri Hustvedt in Heidelberg

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


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In Which I Gate-Crash History

For a while, in between being a real journalist and a corporate one, I worked as an assistant to a fundraiser. One of our customers was Outward Bound, the experiential outdoor learning programme started by Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun School. Of all our customers, Outward Bound was my favourite, not least because of all the fit instructors with intriguing Antipodean accents who liked to go around shirtless, but also because of the goals the newly-started Outward Bound organisation had in South Africa. It planned to offer courses to disaffected township youth, kids who had been the final beneficiaries of the iniquitously substandard apartheid education, who were starting to become known as the “lost generation”. Outward Bound hoped to teach them skills, self-confidence and the ability to recognise their own potential, so that they wouldn’t become lost but would find a way to rejoin society.

1994 was a stunning year for South Africa: we had the first nonracial election where black and white people queued up together to vote, Nelson Mandela was voted in as president and the transitional government began working together and writing the new Constitution. World leaders and dignitaries from 140 countries attended Mandela’s inauguration, including Prince Phillip, international patron of Outward Bound and the third pupil to have attended Hahn’s Gordonstoun school. We decided to hold a fundraiser, get the Prince to attend and speak, invite businesspeople and hopefully raise a ton of money for our customer.

The fundraiser was set – it was to be a lunch held in Cape Town at the posher than posh Mount Nelson Hotel. The other star guest was Steve Tshwete, South Africa’s newly appointed minister for sport, an ANC stalwart who had been a leader in the armed resistance (MK), had spent 15 years on Robben Island and was a sport fanatic. The Prince was also engaged to turn up, press hands and say a few choice words about Outward Bound. I managed to squeeze myself onto the list too. I think my boss would have preferred me to stay in Johannesburg and woman the phones in her absence, but I fluttered my eyelashes at a couple of Antipodeans and scored an invite. Garbed in a lovely new purple suit bedecked with a gazillion shiny gold buttons (you have to forgive me, it was the 90s, and my shoes were gold too), I flew with my boss to Cape Town. Off to meet a Prince.

A small administrative error meant we had set the fundraiser on the same day that the transitional government were meeting for the very first time at Parliament in Cape Town. However, Steve Tshwete or one of his army of assistants assured us that after the morning session, he would cover the short distance from Parliament to the Mount Nelson and be there in time to welcome the Prince. We believed him.

After hearing that Prince Phillip was on his way, and there was still no Mr Tshwete in sight, my boss fixed me with a gimlet eye and said, with shades of Miranda Priestly, “Charlotte, go and fetch him.” I mentally looked around to see if there was anyone of smaller consequence than myself to whom I could pass on the job, but no, I was the kippie, and I had to go and fetch the Minister of Sport. So I hoisted my purple skirt, and slipping around nicely in my gold brogues, ran down Government Avenue. All around me, people were enjoying the warm autumn sunshine in the Company Gardens and squirrels were chittering happily in the oak trees. But I was on Mission Uncomfortable.

When I got to the Parliament Buildings all was quiet. I told a guard, “I’m here to fetch Mr Tshwete” and he seemed to think that was a good enough reason to let me in, despite my sweaty and dishevelled purple  demeanour. I stood around in the empty courtyard for a while, wondering what my next step would be. I couldn’t just burst into Parliament and remove Steve Tshwete from the session, even though a Prince was waiting for him. Just then the huge doors were flung open. Parliament was over. There was me and there were all the luminaries of South Africa’s new government, ululating, singing, hugging, crying with joy. They were celebrating their triumph right in front of my eyes. These people had fought their whole lives for this moment, lost family and friends to the struggle against apartheid, and I was witness to their joy.

I pushed through the crowd and found Steve Tshwete just inside the building, where he was hugging some comrades with tears streaming down his face. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr Tshwete, I’m Charlotte,” I said. “I’m from Outward Bound and I’m here to fetch you to come and meet Prince Phillip.”

He enveloped me in a huge hug and then looked sincerely into my eyes. “Charlotte, dear Charlotte. Tell the Prince I’m not coming.”

So I ran back up Government Avenue to the Mount Nelson, sweatily relayed the news to my boss that Steve Tshwete was going to have a major party with his comrades and would not be available to glad-hand Prince Phillip. Shortly afterwards, his eminence arrived. I stood in line and received a limp little handshake, and then sat and listened to him say some not very memorable words on behalf of Outward Bound. My mother-in-law, who is British and a proud monarchist, now has a photograph of me and Prince Phillip on her mantelpiece. I don’t. But what I do have is a big hug from one of South Africa’s heroes (sadly now fallen) on the first day of the first meeting of my country’s new government. To me, that’s a million times better than meeting a Prince.


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I Am Not a Celebrity …

… but apparently I am a male C-list blogger. I guess that’s the blogging equivalent of being the guy who was voted out of Big Brother in the first week for peeing in the shower, or being a celebrity gardener’s second cousin. I am the one who carries the toolkit for the DIY guy on Changing Rooms whose name you can never remember. I am not Posh Spice’s mother’s hairdresser, I am the kippie who brings her coffee when she’s in the salon. But I am proud of this:

C-List Blogger

To find out your very own bloglebrity, go to Kineda. You enter your URL and a widget calculates whether you are A, B, C or D-list via your Technorati authority and the frequency of your posts. It’s all about link love, darlings. Plus you get the cute little icon above.

And just to show how committed I am to my blogging friends, let me give credit where credit is due. First I went to Litlove, had a nose around her blogroll. There I found No Dependencies/No Logo, which led me to Kineda.

Another fun thing to do when you’re sick of deleting spam and fluttering around cyberspace like a tired pigeon looking for somewhere to land, is the Gender Genie. This I found courtesy of Aphra. You cut and paste your text into the Genie and it assesses your gender via your writing style. I write like a girl. Except for this post, which the Gender Genie believes was written by a man.

Bidding you a warm farewell, your male, C-list blogpal, Charlotte … Just off for a back wax.