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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Siri Hustvedt's "What I Loved"

What I Loved” turned out to be a surprisingly engrossing book. I say surprisingly because despite some repetitive elements in the narrative, the compelling characters kept me glued to the page. This is, I believe, the fastest I have ever read a book over 300 pages (and that’s a lot to say). I think it took me a little under a day and a half. I wanted to post my impressions of the book yesterday but I didn’t have the time. The more I work on my courses website, the less time is left over to write. The reading comes easy, really, at my second story balcony right off my main bedroom. It’s a lovely place to read. At any rate, Leo’s son, Matthew, drowns and shortly thereafter Bill also dies (of a heart attack). With Erica gone to teach on the west coast (Berkley), Leo and Violet are left alone to deal with Bill’s death and Mark’s continuous decent into chaos. Mark becomes entangled with an artist-turned-murderer—his name is Teddy Giles. Mark steals and lies beyond anything I have ever read possible in a fictional character (it reminded me of “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, but more complex and depth-driven). Mark lies to the point where Leo and Violet can’t do anything to help him. Up to the very end it is still unclear how Mark’s personality has become so muddled. The murder committed by Teddy Giles is not confirmed until the very end and he is put away. Since the novel takes place over the span of 25 years, Leo, the narrator, becomes an “old man,” and tries unsuccessfully to create a place for himself in the world. I say unsuccessfully because what ails him the most is the fact that he begins to lose his eye sight—for an art historian that must be deadly. He continues work on his Goya book, but soon shifts his attention to a book on Bill’s work trying to finish it before a retrospective of Bill’s work takes place. The story drags a bit at the end but definitely the characters make up for it in the end. There’s a quote by Gershom Scholem that Leo analyzes in the course of trying to understand Mark’s resistance to reality. The quote is a translation from Hebrew: “to repent” which is the same word for “to return.” Violet soon turns her attention to a possible teaching position in Paris and takes off leaving Leo behind, alone.

This is definitely a book I will recommend for its depth and large, complex, varied and chameleon-like characters. Worth my time and effort!

I worked yesterday about six hours at the English Department office. As I was walking out, I saw a student that graduated a couple of years ago. She is now a sophomore in college. After some small talk, I got into my car and thought about that student when she came as a freshman to the academy. She was in the soccer team (which I coached at the time) and it seemed she rubbed everyone the wrong way. She quit the team shortly after that and I never really stopped worrying about her until the moment she graduated. I think the rest of the students in her class understood her around the end of her second year here, and accepted her personality and her ways. It is true that everyone finds their pace in life—I clearly saw that in her yesterday. I started thinking as I drove home that I really don’t know much about the students in general. I mean, there’s always the over-achiever, the one who wants to be more intelligent than the instructor, the under-achiever, the eternally-bored one, the one who likes you and the one who hates you all at the same time…. I think I am beginning to see a maturity in me as an instructor, an ability to let go of them after four years realizing that indeed they are NOT my daughters and that I am just a tiny, tiny some times insignificant part of their lives. I accept that. All I can do is give all I’ve got every four year stretch, one set of class after another and never relent. I am not as confused about my role as a teacher anymore, at least not how I used to be. It’s all a cycle, a readjusting and regenerative process. One must love it, of course, but one must also be realistic about one’s own contribution to the learning process. Think too much of your own role in it and you spoil it—embrace its realities and perhaps you’ll be more efficient, more loving, more compassionate. I only regret that I have only four years to give to each class. It is reality at work that, after they leave, they are on their own and because the world offers so much now, I end up meaning very little to them. I am not upset or jealous about it… it’s just reality… they leave and most of them never come back.

Next on my reading list is “Writers on Writing: Volume ii.” This is the continuation of “The New York Times” columns that were collected on an earlier volume I read this year. I plan to complete the cycle and read “An End to Suffering” right after.

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At 1:58 PM, Blogger litlove said...

I'm so glad to know you appreciated this book as it's on my list of summer reading. I found your words about teaching very touching too. It is hard to say goodbye to them sometimes, but surprising how often they come back.

At 4:11 PM, Blogger Charlotte said...

It's been a couple of years since I read What I Loved, but I remember the most acute description of grief that I have ever read (when the son dies). It gave me a physical feeling of grief as if one of my own loved ones had died. I really think Hustvedt is an exceptional writer.


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