“It is impossible to divine a story while you are living it; it is shapeless; an inchoate procession of words and things, and let us be frank: we never recover what was. Most of it vanishes. And yet as I sit here at my desk and try to bring it back, that summer not so long ago, I know turns were made that affected what followed. Some of them stand out like bumps on a relief map, but then I was unable to perceive them because my view of things was lost in the undifferentiated flatness of living one moment after another. Time is not outside us, but inside. Only we live with past, present, and future, and the present is too brief to experience anyway; it is retained afterwards and then it is either codified or it slips into amnesia. Consciousness is the product of delay.”
This is the second in my series of reviews of books by Siri Hustvedt and boy am I glad to have rediscovered her. Reading with purpose can be as exhausting as it is rewarding and whilst I love what I read and blog about, occasionally it is nice to wolf a book down with sheer, unrestrained pleasure. And The Summer Without Men is one of those books that is both delicious and nutritious, the best kind of book.
In The Summer Without Men, middle-aged poet Mia Fredricksen finds herself cracking up and livid on account of her husband Boris’s ‘pause’ i.e. a break in their marriage as he tries out a relationship with a younger woman. The pause – which refers both to the break up and the woman – causes Mia to suffer a momentary mental breakdown, a Brief Psychotic Disorder, which puts her in the hospital and then propels her back home to spend some time with her ancient Mum, ostensibly employed to teach a poetry class over the summer. Her grown up daughter Daisy stays home, reporting back on the state of affairs with her father and worrying about her mother’s state of mind. Whilst living alone, Mia finds herself surrounded by women in different states of being: her mother and her friends – the Five Swans, as Mia calls them – confronting their deteriorating bodies, death and living their lives without the men with which they’d shared most of their time; a group of teenage girls, her poetic protégées, battling with their identities, status and being bullies/bullied; and then there’s Lola, the woman next door, a young mother with aspirations to start her own jewellery business with an angry, errant husband and two small children – little Flora, an imaginative toddler, and baby Simon. If it sounds like Hustvedt has set up a dangerous set of clichés – the abandoned wife, the irrelevant old women, the bitchy teenagers, the tired dowdy mother – you’d be right, but in Hustvedt’s hands there’s not a cliché in sight. She’s simply too intelligent for that.
What there is is a lot of anger towards…not men exactly but rather the sterotypes about men and women, the roles each are meant to perform, the expectations and the way these structures shape and limit people’s lives. This often comes out as sarcasm or anger in Mia’s reflections, like here when she muses on the supposed greater ‘verbal skills’ of women:
“Our superior ‘verbal skills’, if we follow the professor’s own logic, explain why women have dominated the literary arts for so long, nary a man in sight. I am sure you have also noticed that when the titans of contemporary literature are referred to, both in academia and in the popular press, the numbers of women among them are, quite simply, overwhelming.”
Or here, where she talks about books clubs:
“The book club is big. It has been sprouting up like proverbial fungi all over the place, and it is a cultural form dominated almost entirely by women. In fact, reading fiction is often regarded as a womanly pursuit these days. Lots of women read fiction. Most men don’t. Women read fiction written by women and by men. Most men don’t. If a man opens a novel, he likes to have a masculine name on the cover; it’s reassuring somehow. You never know what might happen to that external genitalia if you immerse yourself in imaginary doings concocted by someone with the goods on the inside.”
But it also appears in much subtler ways than that, largely by undermining expectations and stereotypes by presenting the characters like real people with complex and rich lives. Nowhere does this work better than with the Five Swans, which become Four Swans and Three Swans later on. These older women, including Mia’s mother, have all found their own ways to live independent and rich lives. Mia’s mother, for example, explains why she would never remarry – because she didn’t want to look after anyone again. It is an interesting point, mirroring a discussion I once had with my own Mum a while after my Dad died and she’d been ‘involved’ with another man. She said the same thing, that she valued her independence – the echo gave me a little shiver – but it’s deeper than that. Not living with a man offers a woman a different kind of life, a less compromising one, but living close to someone also opens us up to the prospect of pain and loss. Did Mia’s mother never enter into another male/female relationship because she had loved deeply, and that love was enough? Hustvedt introduces some uncertainty with this powerful scene:
“I remembered my mother touching his face. At first, she used a single finger, as if she were drawing his features directly onto his body, a wordless outline of her husband’s countenance. But then she pressed her palms against his forehead, cheeks, eyes, nose and neck, squeezing his flesh hard like a sightless woman desperate to memorize his face. My mother, both tough and blighted, her lips pressed together, her eyes wide with urgency as she began to grasp his shoulders and arms and then his chest. I turned away from this private claim to a man, this possessive declaration of time spent, and I left the room. When I returned, my father was dead.”
Another of the swans, Regina, reveals subversive embroidery to Mia, and another flirts with men and dementia, but it is the relationship with her mother which is most powerful. Boris’s infidelity leads to revelations about her own parents’ relationship which Mia had never known about. It is a summer of learning, of unknowing what she believed she knew and learning a new way forward. Then there is the poetry classes, and the tension and push/pull tug of love and hate between the teenaged girls. This brings Mia in touch with her younger self; she, too, suffered at the hands of bullies and the experience comes to the forefront of her mind as she deals with the fallout of the quiet battles between them. Yet even here, a creative approach sheds new light on the experience and even this is shown to be much more complex, more nuanced, than the often simply presented idea of girls fighting bitchily with girls.
Not a great deal happens in The Summer Without Men, yet a lot happens. Mia suffers and grows and learns about herself and the women around her. She is angry and sad, rejected and paranoid, but she is these things in the same way that her mother is old, and Lola is tired and the girls are teenagers and bullies. It is much more complex than the words reveal. It is also a very funny book. Hustvedt has a clever, ironic, dry sense of humour. There are quirky little drawings here and there, and strange texts from a strange man known only as Mr. Nobody. Mia is rejected, she is sad, but she is also a little ridiculous and she, too, is prone just like the rest of us to jumping to conclusions and stereotyping in the most hyperbolic ways, like here as she talks to her therapist over the phone:
“’There was a storm last night,’ I said, ‘a big one. I liked it.’ I was rambling, but that was good, free association. ‘It was like listening to my own rage, but rage with real power, big, masculine, godlike, magisterial, paternal bangs in the heavens, the kind of thundering rage that makes the lackeys hop to, a baritone roar shaking the sky. I could almost feel the town move.’
‘You think if your anger had power, paternal power, you could shape things in your life more to your liking. Is that what you mean?’
Is that what I meant? ‘I don’t know.’
‘Is it perhaps that you felt your father’s emotions had power in the family, power over your mother, your sister, and you, and you were always stepping around his feelings, trying not to upset him. And you’ve felt the same thing in your marriage, perhaps reproduced the same story, and all the while you’ve gotten angrier and angrier?’
Lord, the woman is sharp, I though. I answered her with a small, meek ‘Yes’.”
It’s a great read, full of fun and humanity and real, wonderful people. It has strange interludes (Mia regularly breaks the fourth wall or meanders off into flights of fancy) yet it is serious and sorrowful and full to overflowing with emotional insight. It is a very clever book by a very clever woman, and it was also an absolute pleasure to read. And I suspect I will be saying that again as I review the next Hustvedt on my pile, but I won’t apologise for that. Hustvedt, if anything, is more than deserving of my praise.