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?
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