What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt's What I loved is both a moving elegy for the vibrant but long gone art scene of 1970s New York and a meditation on the shattering effects of time and tragedy on two couples whose lives become intertwined. The narrator, Leo Hertzberg is a university professor and, together with his wife Erica, also an academic, he befriends Bill Wechsler, an artist working in a SoHo loft. Bill's work is very different from the prevailing minimalism practised by most of his contemporaries - his work is figurative, narrative and although apparently deeply personal, also very elusive. Leo and Erica become increasingly close to Bill and his wife Lucille and, when Erica and Lucille give birth to boys within a few months of each other, their personal and artistic lives seem closer than ever. Even the break-up of Bill's marriage and his subsequent marriage to Violet, the woman who as acted as the model and inspiration for so many of his paintings, only serves to bring Bill and Leo closer together. However, the fabric of their lives is torn irreparably by one tragic event.
Despite the deceptively simply premise - the interwoven relationships of two couples - this is a daring and dazzling novel that blends different literary genres to impressive effect . While lesser writers may have used New York's art scene as little more than a hip and colourful backdrop for a conventional emotional drama, Hustvedt uses art as both the novel's context and its meaning. The characters' reaction to Bill's work is a metaphor for their attempts to cognize the significance of events and relationships in their own lives, and the myriad ways of seeing and being seen resonate in the context of Bill's work and in the wider milieu of their lives. Leo is an art history professor whose job is to read, describe and accord meaning to the works he examines and yet, many of the emotions and motives of his closest friends remain a mystery to him. In turn, Bill's son Mark, is an apparently charming and well-adjusted adolescent who becomes an increasingly sinister presence in Leo's life.
As Leo becomes embroiled in the duplicity of Mark's life, the tone switches from an emotional saga to a psychological thriller. Such a formal switch could have been jarring and yet, Hustvedt fleshes out her characters so masterfully that every development feels real, and the feeling of suspense is so impressively evoked precisely because we know and care for these characters' predicament so much. Hustvedt has such faith in her characters that my initial fear that an exploration of artists' emotional lives could be pretentious or indulgent, is wholly dismissed.
The development of Bill's art - from figurative painting to installation pieces to video - is covered in detail, and Hustvedt clearly relishes the challenge of describing many of his pieces in beautiful and meticulous prose. Hustvedt never patronises her readers - she assumes we know as much about art as her characters - and artists names and movements are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. She moves effortlessly from the public to the private, and the narrative is equally poised whether dissecting the intimacies of relationships or discussing the sweep of art history.
This is an erudite and deeply serious novel of ideas, but is also a genuine suspense-filled page-turner which places its characters lives at the very heart of its narrative. Too frequently in recent years, writers of literary fiction seem to have eschewed the vicissitudes of relationships and have shied away from exploring the emotional lives of their characters as if this territory should be left to writers of genre fiction. With this exquisite study of human attachments and motives, Hustvedt triumphantly reclaims the emotional heartland of our lives and reasserts it as the most vital and serious subject for all art.