Saturday, August 6, 2016

What is left when what we loved is gone? (Books - What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt)

In the New York art world of the 1970s, art historian, Leo Hertzberg, experiences a powerful painting.  He buys it, beginning a friendship with the artist Bill Wechsler that is the center of What I Loved (Sceptre, 2016) Siri Hustvedt's deep, serious, and multifarious novel, first published in 2003 and recently released in a beautiful new softcover edition from Sceptre.

What I Loved is about many things: art, love between friends, between lovers, spouses, parents and children, and it is also very much about loss - as the title presages.  It is Hustvedt's accomplishment that though this novel occurs over a span of thirty years, interrelating the psychology of hysteria and eating disorders, page-long descriptions of visual art, details of quotidian domestic existence and passionate infidelity, and moments of profound grief, and though it is told from the first-person perspective of a somewhat fusty art academic, you don't look at the brushwork.  The ins, outs, and intersections of theme, of characters and of what they make - because everyone is painting, drawing, writing essays, a dissertation, cooking a meal, staging a rave (these characters are nothing if not generative) - this welter of detail gives rise to a single complexity - a work of rich substance and of emotional heft.

 Art is mysterious, but selling art may be even more mysterious.  The object itself is bought and sold, handed from one person to another, and yet countless factors are at work within the transaction.  In order to grow in value, a work of art requires a particular psychological climate. At that moment, SoHo provided exactly the right amount of mental heat for art to thrive and for prices to soar. Expensive work from every period must be impregnated by the intangible - an idea of worth. This idea has the paradoxical effect of detaching the name of the artist from the thing, and the name becomes the commodity that is bought and sold. The object merely trails after the name as its solid proof.
The distance Leo Hertzberg, the first-person narrator, is accustomed to keeping from his experiences - his sometimes pedantic explanations, his stoic voice - are, in fact, key to the reader's appreciation of the gestalt of this novel, as well as to be being moved by it.  A good art historian or critic's eye is trained to see how pieces form a whole, how small gestures lead to large impacts.  That perspective helps us pull together the idea of what a painting or play or book accomplishes - to give words to the process behind what has happened to us in the appreciation of a work. Many people don't care to look further than what has happened to them, but if you do, then a good critic can become a valuable guide.

For all the intelligence and deliberateness Hustvedt gives Leo, she also gives him a beautiful, unsophisticated quirk.  Leo has a private drawer where he keeps objects - talismans of profound moments and relationships. As his life progresses and his losses grow, that drawer becomes more and more full. What goes into it would be unlikely to have the same value to anyone else.  The excerpt that I quoted from the novel may be speaking about art as a commodity, but it is indeed "an idea of worth" that gives anything its value. Life is full of millions of bits of information, things we must do, things we have done, but when something pierces through the membrane of consciousness, it leaves behind something that is not the thing itself, but a symbol of it.  This is what art does, and really we hang onto a rock, a ticket stub, or a pocket knife for the same reason. It becomes endowed with and speaks to an experience that has formed us.  It lets us be touched by it all over again.

What Hustvedt also weaves in to the story in a profound way is the subject of mental illness - she explores more than one illness of the psyche which, in the context of this novel, I couldn't help but experience as analogous to these objects of memory.  The illness too is born of something formative.  There are genes which lay the groundwork, but don't necessarily guarantee a specific outcome.  And then there are injuries - losses of love, of security.  And long after these wounds have closed, or relative security has been regained, in the afflicted person the power of the hurt remains, although taking some different form. The result is a person who experiences aspects of the world as endowed with a significance other people do not perceive.

What I Loved begins with Leo's discovery of letters between Bill Wechsler and the love of his life - an exemplary opening to a work that is a contemplation on what is left when what we loved is gone.  But the rhythm is anything but contemplative.  The engine powering the narrative is the drive of the SoHo art world - giving this penetrating work the pace of an entertainment.

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