SIRI HUSTVEDT is the author of five novels, including The Sorrows of an American, What I Loved, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, and The Blindfold, as well as two collections of essays. She is also the author of The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves. Her latest book is The Summer Without Men. For more about Siri and her work, visit her website. Here she answers five questions from NANCY K. MILLER. Nancy K. Miller is a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center (CUNY). Her memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, will be published by University of Nebraska Press in September 2011.
Nancy K. Miller: The Summer Without Men seems a major departure from your last two novels. The narrator is a woman and you’ve embraced a comic—or at least, comedic—mode. What inspired this change?
Siri Hustvedt: All told, I spent ten years of my life writing as a man. It took me six years to write What I Loved, the narrator of which is a seventy-year-old man, Leo Hertzberg, and after that, I spent four years as Erik Davidsen, the narrator of The Sorrows of an American. Once I had finished my nonfiction book about the ambiguities of diagnosis and my own seizure disorder, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, I knew that my next novel would be narrated by a woman. I was ready for a woman. In fact, I wanted to write a book in which there was no “real” male presence (no doubt a reaction against my manly decade). The men are all off-stage, which is a tacit nod to a rather terrible and misogynist play The Women, which nevertheless has its high comic moments. (In the film, Rosalind Russell is superb.) Where did Mia come from? I’m not sure, but I had a great time “being” Mia. Writing is a form of possession, and I was possessed by a new caustic, highly ironic, female voice blasting away at the stupidities of patriarchal culture. I think of the novel as a splenetic tragicomedy.
Nancy K. Miller: The narrator—Mia—shares many of your interests (in philosophy, neuroscience), and some of your biographical details: your age, a daughter who is an actress, an elderly mother in Minnesota. Would you want your readers to see the heroine as a version of you?
Siri Hustvedt: I am no more like Mia than I am like my other characters. In terms of sensibility, I am probably most like Leo, my old, Jewish, male, art historian in What I Loved than any of my other narrators. I always place my characters in intimate spaces, either New York (where I have lived since 1978) or in Minnesota (where I grew up). I like to see them walking around in places I know very well. My fictions are set in the topoi of memory, but they do not relate actual events. Despite our commonalities—age, actress daughter, an old mother in Minnesota—Mia and I are very different. The roots of the imagination are complex and partake—in my case, anyway—of emotional, rather than literal, truths. Surely there is something in Mia’s rage, her irony, her jokes and her pathos that are of me, but this of-ness is not autobiographical. It is tapping into an emotional fabula, a comic-what-if self. As for philosophy and neuroscience, my immersion in these fields seems to crop up in my fiction like corn or alfalfa out there on the Midwestern plains.
Nancy K. Miller: The novel takes women both elderly and very young quite seriously, with physical detail about bodies and emotions, and with sympathy. Would you be surprised, pleased, or disappointed to have reviewers call the book feminist?
Siri Hustvedt: The novel is a feminist comedy. And like all good comedies, it is also serious. The book attacks directly the notion that stories about women and domestic life in backwaters are somehow inferior—not truly serious––when the author is a woman. Mia says, “Life in the provinces, unworthy of remark? Women’s travails of no import? It’s okay when it’s Flaubert, of course. Pity the idiots.” I have come to understand in my deep middle age that a good deal of such prejudice about women writers is unconscious, that the men and women who attribute greater authority and intelligence to the male voice do not intend to denigrate the feminine but do so without thinking. To be honest, I find this both shocking and outrageous. Humor is a great weapon. Through laughter and irony it may become possible to see what is otherwise veiled, to recognize the absurdities of a culture that continues to propagate primitive binary oppositions between men and women (Men are from Mars/Women are from Venus). Although I don’t follow reviews very closely (too squeamish and easily annoyed), it seems that the book’s jokes about evolutionary socio-biology, the history of sex differences, and contemporary neuroscience have hardly been mentioned. This saddens me, but then I have become used to writing books that, to my own mind, are misunderstood…so I am delighted that you cut to the chase and asked about feminism. Yes, the book is feminist, and I’m proud of it.
The queasiness in the culture about feminism interests me in itself. It is viewed as somehow “unattractive.” It elicits groans, grimaces, and of course, jokes. My approach was to turn the jokes around—to fire back with laughter and, I hope, poignancy.
Nancy K. Miller: You begin with an epigraph from the 1937 film The Awful Truth, and you refer to Stanley Cavell’s wonderful book about the comedies of remarriage, Pursuits of Happiness. Did you want your novel to revisit the plot of that movie for the 21st century? Is Mia’s brief mental breakdown the modern version of 1930s, or a pun on screwball comedy?
Siri Hustvedt: I have loved the Hollywood comedies of the thirties and forties for a long time. In fact, my husband and I have talked about writing a contemporary screwball comedy together for many years because it would be fun. Hollywood has abandoned wit, however, and we are both working on other projects so the collaboration remains a pipe dream. The epigraph from The Awful Truth introduces the text as a comedy about marriage, but it is also meant to alert the reader that the idea of difference will be highly significant in the pages to come. I think of the book as a little disquisition on difference, not just sexual difference but difference in general. Mia quotes Plutarch’s On Common Conceptions for a reason. When does one thing become another? What is change? Do people change? How is difference defined? What role does it play in ostracism? Cavell’s book is brilliant, and I wanted Mia to name and quote Cavell because his book haunts mine, and I wanted his influence to be openly declared. The Summer Without Men is a comedy of remarriage, although the story of the marriage is only seen from Mia’s perspective, and it ends just before the end, so to speak, with Boris about to enter the scene. Mia says, “A comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.” The last words of the novel are FADE TO BLACK intended of course to refer back to the cinematic, to artifice, to the theatrical, the imaginary, and to play and playing.
As for the pun, my dear Mia does literally become a screwball in her mad period—her particular breakdown is now called “brief psychotic disorder”—but fortunately the illness is not permanent. She recovers and is free to play the heroine in The Summer Without Men.
Nancy K. Miller: You name the husband’s affair the “pause”…which is both a witty and almost friendly kind of word for his betrayal. Do you want the reader to forgive him?
Siri Hustvedt: This is a good question. Mia is furious with Boris, enraged, mortified, but there is a part of her that understands his passion for the Pause, his sexual urgency, if you will. As Mia says, “Can I really blame Boris for his Pause, for his need to seize the day, for snatching the pausal snatch while there was still time, still time for the old-timer he was swiftly becoming? Don’t we all deserve to romp and hump and carry on?” Sexual desire plays an important role the narrative—both the force of its expression and the pain that results when it is thwarted. Part of Abigail’s story (a very old woman who has lived alone for decades) is that her life as a sexual being has been deformed by the world around her. The ongoing references to and stories about male and female genitalia are not just jokes about biological difference. They are meditations on our lustful animal selves and how our drives are shaped by thought and language.
It is impossible to forgive the impenitent, Christian ideology notwithstanding. Boris, however, appears to come around, to feel regret for his rash behavior (his pausal folly) and since, we, all of us human beings, sometimes act precipitously, it is hard for me, as his creator, not to feel genuine sympathy for his plight. There is enough of Boris’s life recounted in the novel, I think, for the reader to understand that he is not an awful man but a man who is a bit shutdown and estranged from many of his own feelings. Perhaps the refrain of my own thoughts runs like this: Life is complicated.