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AWG Book Group discussion of The Summer Without Men, by Siri Hustvedt, Friday, November 8, 2019

 

This was the best attended AWG book discussion in many years (there were 13 participants!), and I took copious notes.  There was really a lot of discussion about a book that very few of us said we liked.  (One member admitted that she was “lukewarm.”)  For those who didn’t already know it, we noted that Siri Hustvedt is married to the author Paul Auster.

Leslie started the discussion by reading the lines from the movie The Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, that are a preface to the story.  (Lucy: You’re all confused, aren’t you?  … Jerry: …you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same…)  She said that they give the note of the story.  She then read part of the first paragraph on Page 1, about the “pause.”  Leslie noted that the narrator had a “psychotic episode” but remarked that it is not a book about the psychotic episode, but about recovery.  She felt that the narrator did indeed recover.  It is a story without men; all the men, except the little baby Simon, are “off-stage.”  Leslie voiced the question, Why, after so many years of writing as a man, or with a man as narrator, did the author write a book only about women?  Leslie said that the author knew that her next book (ed.- the book, her fifth work of fiction, was published in 2011) would be about a woman and narrated by a woman (but I failed to note where she found that information).

As to the women in the book, there is the narrator’s sister, and the narrator’s mother, who is widowed, wonderful and supportive, and lives with her “Swans” (four other widowed friends) in a retirement home in Minnesota,  the state where both the author and Mia, the narrator, were born and grew up, and to which Mia flees following her breakdown, to give a summer workshop on poetry.  Leslie said that it’s interesting getting older, but the body tends to give out.  (I didn’t note whether that was a quote from the book, or a personal commentary.)  There are seven pre-teen girls enrolled in Mia’s poetry workshop, as well as Mia’s next-door neighbor and her little daughter Flora, and Mia’s own 19-year-old daughter.  There is also a female therapist, whom Mia contacts by phone when she’s in Minnesota, and, of course, reference to the “Pause,” Mia’s husband’s young and French colleague.

Leslie told us that the author calls the book a “comedy,” because “a comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.”  She even said it is a feminist comedy (quote from the book: “I took it like a woman.  I wept.”), and “like all good comedies, it is also serious.”  The critics were not always kind.  A male critic didn’t like so many Swans, and was relieved when one died, as that made one less name to remember.  Another critic said it takes a while to get used to the author speaking directly to the reader, but Leslie said she liked that, and found the narrator affectionate.

And then there is Mr. Nobody, who sends text messages to Mia.  But we wondered, might “he” have been Mrs. Nobody? He (or she) proves to be more Mia’s intellectual equal than any of the girls in her poetry workshop.  We even raised the question of whether Mr. Nobody is real or imaginary.  (Later, during the discussion, Leslie said she felt that Stephan, Boris’ brother who committed suicide, was a bit like Mr. Nobody.) 

Leslie read the final line of the book, “FADE TO BLACK,” and said that it tied the end to the beginning.  She then opened the discussion by saying that the author said Mia’s husband Boris is estranged from his feelings (ed.-as well as from his wife), and suggested possible topics for discussion, such as maternal feelings, anger, and how re-writing the story of her marriage might help Mia to deal with emotional pain.

And if the story is meant to be without men, what in fact is the role of this “Mister” Nobody?  Is he real?  He starts out aggressive when Mia is angry, but then he gets nicer, and eventually she thinks he might really be a woman.  The question arises, Is she writing to herself?  (quote from the book: “… the written word hides the body of the one who writes. For all you know, I might be a MAN in disguise.”)

Leslie, who said the author was empathetic, said she called attention to some interesting theories, saying that most book clubs are groups of women, as men don’t usually read fiction, and another member noted that men are usually the authors.  Many of the participants voiced their opinions about the book and, as noted above, very few said they liked it.  One member said the author (and thus Mia) cited too many philosophers.  Another, who was not able to attend the meeting, sent her comments (see below) and called the author “pretentious.”  Another said the one character she really liked was Abigail, one of the Swans, who was very clever, and was living a secret life.  One said that at least the author referred to Jane Austen, so she would forgive her a lot.  And one said she was reminded of the situation of someone she knows, because Mia got used to the fact that Boris was gone, and didn’t expect him to come back.  Another member stated categorically that she didn’t like the book, but liked the presentation.  She said if Mia takes Boris back, it is not a cop-out.  Mia has come a long way, and the book IS feminist.  Another member felt that Mia is a feminist, but the book itself is not feminist.  I said I felt Mia is a survivor, and then asked, What is our definition of feminism? We could not agree, and got into quite a vociferous discussion, starting with the comment that feminism is a societal issue, and this was personal.

The discussion of the book continued, with a remark about the contrast between the two female groups – the Swans and the workshop girls.  We commented on the “assignment” for the workshop following the bullying incident:  each girl was to give a description of the incident in the voice of one of the others.  One member thought this was unreasonable, but, in fact, they had a week off when Mia’s daughter came to visit, so they used the time that they would normally have been in the workshop.  A member was doubtful that young adolescent girls would accept and do such an assignment, but she was reminded that Mia had met with the mothers after the incident, and had asked for their support.  So the mothers could have encouraged their daughters to do the assignment, or might even have threatened them with being “grounded” or having cell phones taken away.  The question of forgiving and forgetting arose, and one member said that the only way society can move forward is by forgiving.  Another member stressed reconciliation, and gave some personal comments about a “betrayal.”  Someone said we select what we want to remember, and someone else said that all memories are untrue, which led to more discussion, and ended with the remark that we all just remember things differently.

Leslie asked, not whether or not we liked the book, but whether it was worth reading, and got what appeared to me to be an unanimous reply of YES.  One member said the author is an excellent writer, but opinion was divided on whether editing might have helped.  Leslie commented that the author’s husband Paul Auster is her first editor, and she is his.  I asked if there is a basis in real life (the author’s marriage) for the story.  Similarities were noted.  Siri Hustvedt can be said to have been living in Paul Auster’s shadow.  Siri Hustvedt affirms her love for her mother, as does Mia.  Hustvedt and Auster have a 19-year-old daughter, as does Mia.

As in the case of any great discussion, we couldn’t agree on much of anything other than that the book is worth reading.  Seven of the 13 participants thought Mia would take Boris back.  Most of the others thought not, and one said she thinks it’s irrelevant.

For info, Siri Hustvedt is a  lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University, but as far as we know, she has no official qualifications.

p.s.  I forgot to mention during the discussion, in relation to a few lines in the book (“Doesn’t the seventeenth-century use of the measurement yard for penis strike you as a bit of an exaggeration, unless the yard then was not the yard now?”) that in Québec, a unit of measurement of fabric is the “verge” which is the approximate equivalent of a US yard, but in French is a synonym for penis.

At some point during the discussion, the adjectives “shocking” and “outrageous” were applied to quotes from the author.  Here are some quotes from the book:

“Lots of women read fiction. Most men don't. Women read fiction written by women and by men. Most men don't. If a man opens a novel,. he likes to have a masculine name on the cover; it's reassuring somehow. You never know what might happen to that external genitalia if you immerse yourself in imaginary doings concocted by someone with the goods on the inside.”

“Widowers marry again because it makes their lives easier. Widows often don't, because it makes their lives harder.”

“Libraries are sexual dream factories. The langour brings it on.”

“Shorn of intimacy and seen from a considerable distance, we are all comic characters, farcical buffoons who bumble through our lives, making fine messes as we go, but when you get close, the ridiculous quickly fades into the sordid or the tragic or the merely sad.”

Comments sent by the member who could not attend the discussion, but received too late to be shared at the meeting:

Pretentious – we are glad she is intimately acquainted with Lacan and Derrida, not to mention Freud and Kirkegaard….but must she wave them in our faces? Makes it too self-conscious, as in a piece produced for a creative-writing seminar….or maybe that’s the author’s artful way of revealing the personality of the main character??

 

Mia – excellent name: “Me”… “a me” …”Missing in Action”…”Mama Mia”….

All of the myriad other  names were impossible to sort out. She captured the spirit of a generation, name-wise, in that they seem interchangeable.

 

Interesting portrait of Woman at every age, from Flora (?) of the wig and the need to express herself (“my air my air”)

The teeny-boppers

Young women, Daisy and the neighbor

Middle-aged women; the narrator and her sister

Old women with her mother and her friends.

 

Interesting characterizations….to me it seemed an improbable plot element that all of these disparate groups were so buddy-buddy – are we to suppose that this is because of their gender? (or maybe to the nurturing of Mama Mia?..)

 

I can see why this book struck a chord: the old ladies’ book group, etc!!

But I have to say that I don’t agree with their approach to book analysis!

 

…and finally, who was Mr Nobody? I am supposing it was the narrator herself….but then explain the kidney stones.

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