Books In Conversation
SIRI HUSTVEDT with Molly Gallentine
The Summer Without Men
Siri Hustvedt is a scholar of many trades, and has written about psychoanalysis, neuroscience, philosophy, art, and literature. She’s the author of nine books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, including the international best-selling novel, What I Loved, about the friendship between an artist and art historian. In her newest book, The Summer Without Men, Siri continues to share her vast intellect with readers, stirring together philosophy, poetry, and memory amidst such topics as teenage bullying, break-ups in marriage, and encroaching death. Yet, Siri tackles these serious subjects with a light hand, invoking a comedic voice from films such as His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth. During this interview, Siri describes her tactics in writing this uniquely stylized book.
Molly Gallentine (Rail): Your book mostly takes place in Bonden, Minnesota, and the town you’ve created is fictional, right?
Siri Hustvedt: Yes, and the name in Norwegian means “farmer,” or “the farmer.” I also like the word because it has the further meaning of “bond.” You know, the two types of bond: familial, but also bond as in restraint.
Rail: Since you’ve lived in the Midwest, how is this fictional location similar or different from your own experiences of growing up in the area?
Hustvedt: Well, you know, every fictional location is imagined in some way, but there’s no question that the town I grew up in, Northfield, was deeply influential. In fact, after my father died, my mother moved into something called the Northfield Retirement Center. In that place, there are three categories of living: independent living, where my mother is; assisted living; and then there’s something called the care center, which is a nursing home. I modeled the place where Mia’s mother is on my mother’s current apartment in this complex.
Rail: The name Bonden—like you said—also makes you think of the word “bond.” In Mia’s case, it’s a very feminine one. She spends lots of time with women during the summer: the “Swans,” her neighbor, her sister, her daughter. I must point out, there’s a lot of touching. Maybe I’m reading the wrong books, but I find this a rare thing to read about: the physical gestures of friendship between women.
Hustvedt: That’s interesting that you see that. Not long ago, I read Anna Karenina, which is a very intimate book, and Tolstoy describes quite a bit of friendship touching. So there’s one great book that definitely has the human gesture, including women touching each other. But you may be right that it’s not part of all contemporary novels; it’s certainly very important to me—this embodied reality that somehow works itself into the novel.
Rail: Do you think these relationships come with age? The “Swans” (a group of elderly female friends) are a great contrast to Mia’s teenage students.
Hustvedt: Yes. There’s envy and cruelty in all sorts of human relations; it goes on for a lifetime, but it does seem that girls that age are particularly prone. These old ladies, who’ve survived the deaths of their husbands and who go on living, value friendship because death is looking them straight in the face. The reality of death for old people is very different from middle-aged people and children, and I wanted the reality of death to be present in this book for these women.
Rail: That would be important to Mia. She has to deal with a potential death of her relationship too, but she’s at a different point in her life—and it’s a very difficult one, with Boris.
Hustvedt: Yes. It’s after 30 years of marriage. The idea for the book—the sudden departure of the husband—came from a number of stories, like those guys who go out for a cigarette and never come back. That was really the impetus.
Rail: Did you see this in the movies? There’s the nice quote on the inside of your jacket that says, “A comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.” Then you have a fade-out, or a blackout, in the end.
Hustvedt: The epigraph is from the film, The Awful Truth; the epigraph is comic, and what it’s about is the question of difference. When does one thing become another? That’s the heart, or dilemma, of the book. Mia also quotes Stanley Cavell, who wrote a very beautiful book called Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. So the idea of cinema and film runs through the whole book—but also the idea of the imagination. There’s a moment where Mia says, “I will write myself elsewhere,” and then re-writes the beginning of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, imagining herself as the Western hero.
Rail: Well, in terms of The Awful Truth, and in ways that you’ve described cinema, it’s an interesting paradox in that it can be a tragedy and a comedy.
Hustvedt: The book isn’t haha funny all the way through, but when I talk about comedy, I mean it in the oldest sense of the word. Comedies are stories that end well. So, for example, in Shakespeare, you have very similar stories. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy because there are bodies all over the stage in the end, but it’s actually the story of star-crossed lovers and parents who don’t want them to marry the person they really want to marry. In this way, it’s the same as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a comedy. What counts is the ending. Mia prepares you for that notion, before the fadeout, just at the moment where there’s hope for reconciliation. But you know, we’re not 100 percent sure. My sense is that they do get back together, and that she takes him back, but she wants him to come to her.
Rail: Well, your book also reads like a wonderful memoir, and if your name weren’t on the cover, I’d think that you were in fact Mia. Do you find yourself embodying your characters when you write? I’m sure you do, but how do you do this?
Hustvedt: Actually, I’m lecturing on neurobiology and its relation to creativity. But the thing is: where these people come from is truly interesting. I’ve spent 10 years writing novels about men. Then Mia popped out of me. She’s very different, and I’ve never written in a voice like hers before. When you’re writing, how do you know when a sentence is right, or say, this has to happen? It’s some internal feeling, some kind of emotional resonance for the writer. It has to feel emotionally true in some way, even if it’s a complete fiction. And I do think there is a relation between fiction and dreaming. It’s a kind of conscious dreaming. You know how, in dreams, you can have the composite of two people from your life? You know it’s supposed to be your brother, but it doesn’t look like your brother? These kinds of things—what Freud would call “condensations mingling”—are part of the process of writing fiction. Most of it has happened unconsciously before it arrives on the page.
Rail: You have a really interesting comment on the language of youth. Something that is—not to sound too crass, but reductive—a lot of “likes,” a lot of slang. Alice seems to be the only person with a little bit of individualism within her speech, yet she’s bullied. So I was wondering if you had any sort of special commentary on that?
Hustvedt: Mia says that when the girls are together, before class, they sound alike. In class, Mia gives them various writing assignments, and students’ individuality begins to appear. Reductive speech is part of group politics. Language is contagious after all. “There is no such thing as a private language,” Wittgenstein says.
Rail: Your main character quotes a lot, and seems to have a memory for important information.
Hustvedt: She’s a live wire. She’s an intellectual, someone who loves ideas. You could almost say, “intellectophile.” And in order to be a lover of thoughts, you have to read. Mia is clearly a very well-read person, and Mia does say something about herself that applies to me: sometime in my late forties, in the accumulation of my reading, both in science and in the humanities, something tipped. I can’t explain it, except that I think it’s the sheer volume of reading for so many years. There’s always more to know, but suddenly you have an ability to synthesize things from various fields.