What I Lovedby Siri Hustvedt
"What I Loved begins in New York in 1975, when art historian Leo Hertzberg discovers an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist in a SoHo gallery. He buys the work and tracks down the artist, Bill Wechsler, and the two men embark on a lifelong friendship." Leo's story, which spans twenty-five years, follows the evolution of the growing involvement between his… See more details below
"What I Loved begins in New York in 1975, when art historian Leo Hertzberg discovers an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist in a SoHo gallery. He buys the work and tracks down the artist, Bill Wechsler, and the two men embark on a lifelong friendship." Leo's story, which spans twenty-five years, follows the evolution of the growing involvement between his family and Bill's - an intricate constellation of attachments that includes the two men, their wives, Erica and Violet, and their children, Matthew and Mark. The families live in the same building in New York, share a house in Vermont during the summer, keep up a lively exchange of thoughts and ideas, and find themselves permanently altered by one another. Over the years, they not only enjoy love but endure loss - in one case, sudden, incapacitating loss; in another, a different kind, one that is hidden and slow growing, and which insidiously erodes the fabric of their lives.
The novel begins as the story of a painting, one bought by art historian Leo Hertzberg from an unknown artist named William Wechsler. After purchasing the picture, which shows a woman reclining in what initially appears to be an empty room, Hertzberg meets the artist, who explains that his works are all self-portraits. The art establishes a common denominator for the two men, and a friendship forms between them that will evolve over decades, enveloping the families of both.
What I Loved takes the form of Hertzberg's memoir, written a quarter-century after his first encounter with Wechsler. By his early seventies, Hertzberg suffers a cloudiness of vision that makes what he sees in his memory all the more crucial to him. Even so, he recognizes from the outset that what he has had the most trouble seeing clearly is himself.
But the lives of Hertzberg and Wechsler are so intertwined that it's hard for Hertzberg to see himself independent of his friend. Wechsler moves into the same building as Hertzberg, the two become fathers of sons (Matthew and Mark, although Hustvedt doesn't belabor the biblical implications),their families take vacations together. Hertzberg's relationships with Wechsler's wife and mistress, his own marital troubles, the complications of his dealings with Wechsler's increasingly distrustful son all evolve against the backdrop of their bond.
As the careers of Hertzberg and Wechsler progress, Hustvedt offers provocative insight into the commodification of art. Though the author has some interesting insights into the manner in which reputations are made and price tags escalate, her peripheral characters from the gallery circuit seem like caricatures. Among them are a critic who disdains Wechsler and a pop/performance artist of monstrous transgressions who attempts to create "the ultimate work of art." Where the novel's central figures are animated and full of ideas, lesser characters seem more like the embodiment of ideas themselves.
But What I Loved is so much more than the sum of its ideas. Well-rounded and multilayered, the book is less about the art world than about the world at large, one where the interpretive consciousness is always reshaping, reordering and renewing the narrative through which it attempts to make some sense of life's contradictions and chaos. Through the selective vision of memory, the past pervades the present; the present informs the past.
"The recollections of an older man are different from those of a younger man," writes Hertzberg. "What seemed vital at forty may lose its significance at seventy. We manufacture stories, after all, from the fleeting sensory material that bombards us at every instant.... We delete most of it to live with some semblance of order, and the reshuffling of memory goes on until we die."
Over the course of years, the professor discovers who he is by doing his best to remember what he was. Only on the verge of blindness does he come to see himself more clearly than ever.
"So richly imagined is the art in her book that it serves not just to illuminate hidden emotions but also as a subject in itself. . .A wrenching portrait of parental grief, then a psychological thriller, and finally a meditation on the perspective of memory."Vogue
"A great book. The twinning of narrative pleasure with intellectual rigor isn't rare. In fact, it's easy to find if you're plowing through, say, the Modern Library, engaging with classics that come to you already canonized and annointed. But to stumble into such a relationship with a contemporary. . .writer is a heady feeling. Those of us who read new fiction dream of finding such a book." Newsday
"No image is wasted, no sentence superfluous in creating a novel that teems with ideas, emotions.... Hustvedt's novel is a quietly astounding work of fiction that defies categorization."Los Angeles Times
"A remarkable achievement of Siri Hustvedt's prose, with its attention to nuance and intricacy is its demonstration that friendship is a powerful form of intelligence. The book's final pages acknowledge nearly overwhelming loss, but because the reader understands so much, their sadness feels almost like joy."The Washington Post
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WHAT I LOVEDa novel
By SIRI HUSTVEDT
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANYCopyright © 2003 Siri Hustvedt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneYESTERDAY, I FOUND VIOLET'S LETTERS TO BILL. THEY WERE hidden between the pages of one of his books and came tumbling out and fell to the floor. I had known about the letters for years, but neither Bill nor Violet had ever told me what was in them. What they did tell me was that minutes after reading the fifth and last letter, Bill changed his mind about his marriage to Lucille, walked out the door of the building on Greene Street, and headed straight for Violet's apartment in the East Village. When I held the letters in my hands, I felt they had the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again. My eyes are bad now, and it took me a long time to read them, but in the end I managed to make out every word. When I put the letters down, I knew that I would start writing this book today.
"While I was lying on the floor in the studio," she wrote in the fourth letter, "I watched you while you painted me. I looked at your arms and your shoulders and especially at your hands while you worked on the canvas. I wanted you to turn around and walk over to me and rub my skin the way you rubbed the painting. I wanted you to press hard on me with your thumb the way you pressed on the picture, and I thought that if you didn't, I would go crazy, but I didn't go crazy, and you never touched me then, not once. You didn't even shake my hand."
I first saw the painting Violet was writing about twenty-five years ago in a gallery on Prince Street in SoHo. I didn't know either Bill or Violet at the time. Most of the canvases in the group show were thin minimalist works that didn't interest me. Bill's painting hung alone on a wall. It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand-a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moves up and down the streets of New York.
It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excruciating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow for my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man's T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.
To the right of the canvas I read the small typed card: Self-Portrait by William Wechsler. At first I thought the artist was joking, but then I changed my mind. Did that title next to a man's name suggest a feminine part of himself or a trio of selves? Maybe the oblique narrative of two women and a viewer referred directly to the artist, or maybe the title didn't refer to the content of the picture at all, but to its form. The hand that had painted the picture hid itself in some parts of the painting and made itself known in others. It disappeared in the photographic illusion of the woman's face, in the light that came from the invisible window, and in the hyperrealism of the loafer. The woman's long hair, however, was a tangle of heavy paint with forceful dabs of red, green, and blue. Around the shoe and the ankle above it, I noticed thick stripes of black, gray, and white that may have been applied with a knife, and in those dense strokes of pigment I could see the marks left by a man's thumb. It looked as if his gesture had been sudden, even violent.
That painting is here in the room with me. When I turn my head I can see it, although it too has been altered by my failing eyesight. I bought it from the dealer for $2,500 about a week after I saw it. Erica was standing only a few feet away from where I am sitting now when she first looked at the canvas. She examined it calmly and said, "It's like looking at another person's dream, isn't it?"
When I turned to the picture after Erica spoke, I saw that its mixed styles and shifting focus did remind me of the distortions in dreams. The woman's lips were parted, and her two front teeth protruded slightly. The artist had made them shiny white and a little too long, almost like an animal's. It was then that I noticed a bruise just below her knee. I had seen it before, but at that moment its purple cast, which was yellow-green at one edge, pulled my eyes toward it, as if this little wound were really the subject of the painting. I walked over, put my finger on the canvas, and traced the outline of the bruise. The gesture aroused me. I turned to look at Erica. It was a warm September day, and her arms were bare. I bent over her and kissed the freckles on her shoulders, then lifted the hair off her neck and kissed the soft skin underneath it. Kneeling in front of her, I pushed up the material of her skirt, ran my fingers along her thighs, and then I used my tongue. Her knees bent slightly toward me. She pulled down her underpants, tossed them onto the sofa with a grin, and pushed me gently backward onto the floor. Erica straddled me and her hair fell forward onto my face as she kissed me. Then she sat back, pulled off her T-shirt, and removed her bra. I loved that view of my wife. I touched her breasts and let my finger circle a perfectly round mole on the left one, before she leaned over me again. She kissed my forehead and cheeks and chin and then began fumbling with the zipper of my pants.
In those days, Erica and I lived in a state of almost constant sexual excitement. Just about anything could spark off a session of wild grappling on the bed, the floor, and, once, on the dining room table. Since high school, girlfriends had come and gone in my life. I had had brief affairs and longer ones, but always there had been gaps between them-painful stretches of no women and no sex. Erica said that suffering had made me a better lover-that I didn't take a woman's body for granted. On that afternoon, however, we made love because of the painting. I have often wondered since why the image of a sore on a woman's body should have been erotic to me. Later, Erica said that she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person's body. "Skin is soft," she said. "We're easily cut and bruised. It's not like she looks beaten or anything. It's an ordinary little black-and-blue mark, but the way it's painted makes it stick out. It's like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever."
Erica was thirty-four years old then. I was eleven years older than that, and we had been married for a year. We'd literally bumped into each other in Butler Library at Columbia. It was late on a Saturday morning in October, and the stacks were mostly empty. I had heard her steps, had felt her presence behind the dim rows of books illuminated by a timed light that gave off a low humming sound. I found the book I was looking for and walked toward the elevator. Except for the lamp, I heard nothing. I turned the corner and tripped over Erica, who had seated herself on the floor at the end of the stack. I managed to keep my footing, but my glasses sailed off my face. She picked them up, and as I bent over to take them from her, she began to stand up and her head knocked against my chin. When she looked at me, she was smiling: "A few more like that, and we might have something going-a regular slapstick routine."
I had fallen over a pretty woman. She had a wide mouth and thick dark hair cropped to her chin. The narrow skirt she was wearing had moved up her legs in our collision, and I glanced at her thighs as she tugged at her hem. After adjusting her skirt, she looked up at me and smiled again. During the second smile, her bottom lip quivered for an instant, and I took that small sign of nervousness or embarrassment to mean that she was susceptible to an invitation. Without it, I'm quite sure I would have apologized again and walked away. But that momentary tremor in her lip, gone in a moment, exposed a softness in her character and offered me a glimpse of what I guessed was her carefully guarded sensuality. I asked her to have coffee with me. Coffee turned into lunch, and lunch into dinner, and the following morning I was lying next to Erica Stein in the bed of my old apartment on Riverside Drive. She was still sleeping. The light came through the window and illuminated her face and hair. Very carefully I put my hand on her head. I left it there for several minutes while I looked at her and hoped she would stay.
By then we had talked for hours. It turned out that Erica and I came from the same world. Her parents were German Jews who left Berlin as teenagers in 1933. Her father became a prominent psychoanalyst and her mother a voice teacher at Juilliard. The Steins were both dead. They died within months of each other the year before I met Erica, which was the same year my mother died: 1973. I was born in Berlin and lived there for five years. My memories of that city are fragmentary, and some may be false, images and stories I shaped from what my mother told me about my early life. Erica was born on the Upper West Side, where I ended up after spending three years in a Hampstead flat in London. It was Erica who prompted me to leave the West Side and my comfortable Columbia apartment. Before we married, she told me she wanted to "emigrate." When I asked her what she meant, she said that it was time for her to sell her parents' apartment on West Eighty-second Street and take the long subway ride downtown. "I smell death up here," she said, "and antiseptic and hospitals and stale Sacher torte. I have to move." Erica and I left the familiar ground of our childhoods and staked out new turf among the artists and bohemians farther south. We used the money we had inherited from our parents and moved to a loft on Greene Street between Canal and Grand.
The new neighborhood with its empty streets, low buildings, and young tenants freed me from bonds I had never thought of as constraints. My father died in 1947, when he was only forty-three years old, but my mother lived on. I was their only child, and after my father was gone, my mother and I shared his ghost. My mother grew old and arthritic, but my father remained young and brilliant and promising-a doctor who might have done anything. That anything became everything for my mother. For twenty-six years she lived in the same apartment on Eighty-fourth Street between Broadway and Riverside with my father's missing future. Every once in a while, when I was first teaching, a student would refer to me as "Dr. Hertzberg" rather than "Professor," and I would inevitably think of my father. Living in SoHo didn't erase my past or induce forgetfulness, but when I turned a corner or crossed a street, there were no reminders of my displaced childhood and youth. Erica and I were both the children of exiles from a world that has disappeared. Our parents were assimilated middle-class Jews for whom Judaism was a religion their great-grandparents had practiced. Before 1933 they had thought of themselves as "Jewish Germans," a phrase that no longer exists in any language.
When we met, Erica was an assistant professor in English at Rutgers, and I had already been teaching at Columbia in the art history department for twelve years. My degree came from Harvard, hers from Columbia, which explained why she was wandering in the stacks that Saturday morning with an alumni pass. I had fallen in love before, but in almost every case I had arrived at a moment of fatigue and boredom. Erica never bored me. She sometimes irritated and exasperated me, but she never bored me. Erica's comment about Bill's self-portrait was typical of her-simple, direct, and penetrating. I never condescended to Erica.
I had walked past 89 Bowery many times without ever stopping to look at it. The run-down, four-story brick building between Hester and Canal had never been more than the humble quarters of a wholesale business, but those days of modest respectability were long over by the time I arrived to visit William Wechsler. The windows of what had once been a storefront were boarded up, and the heavy metal door at street level was gouged and dented, as if somebody had attacked it with a hammer. A man with a beard and a drink in a paper bag was lounging on the single front step. He grunted in my direction when I asked him to move and then half-rolled, half-slid off the step.
My first impressions of people are often clouded by what I come to know about them later, but in Bill's case, at least one aspect of those first seconds remained throughout our friendship. Bill had glamour-that mysterious quality of attraction that seduces strangers. When he met me at the door, he looked almost as disheveled as the man on the front step. He had a two-day beard. His thick black hair bushed out from the top and sides of his head, and his clothes were covered with dirt as well as paint. And yet when he looked at me, I found myself pulled toward him. His complexion was very dark for a white man, and his clear green eyes had an Asiatic tilt to them. He had a square jaw and chin, broad shoulders, and powerful arms. At six-two, he seemed to tower over me even though I couldn't have been more than a few inches shorter. I later decided that his almost magical appeal had something to do with his eyes. When he looked at me, he did so directly and without embarrassment, but at the same time I sensed his inwardness, his distraction. Although his curiosity about me seemed genuine, I also felt that he didn't want a thing from me. Bill gave off an air of autonomy so complete, it was irresistible.
"I took it for the light," he said to me when we walked through the door of the loft space on the fourth floor. Three long windows at the far end of the single room were shining with the afternoon sun. The building had sagged, which meant the back of the place was considerably lower than the front. The floor had warped as well, and as I looked toward the windows, I noticed bulges in the boards like shallow waves on a lake. The high end of the loft was spare, furnished only with a stool, a table constructed from two sawhorses and an old door, and stereo equipment, surrounded by hundreds of records and tapes in plastic milk crates. Rows of canvases had been stacked against the wall.
Excerpted from WHAT I LOVED by SIRI HUSTVEDT Copyright © 2003 by Siri Hustvedt
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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When you are a writer who is attempting to figure out where to go and you want to be inspired, read Siri Hustvedt. I read this in tandem with her most recent release. I was awed. Her writing casts a wide net and it captures believable characters who don't necessarily solve world problems instead they do something much greater..handle the rollercoaster we call life. I recommend reading her work luxuriously slow and you'll savor something wonderful!
This story is gripping and feels very real. It has many hidden motives and brings to light the difference between who people are and who they pretend to be. Quite well written.
I enjoyed every moment of this book which accurately awknowledges both the transformation of New York City and its art scene in the past 25 years. The main character reflects upon his life in an engaging manner, and you route for him until the very end.
I work in a library and came across this book at work. I took it home that same day and got totally caught up in it. This book kept me guessing in all the right places and was so beautiful that it really took my breath away. I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for something to read that will stir all the emotions within.
The preciously genuine voice of this novel appealled to me deeply. There was no question of the suspension of disbelief. Characters are solid and doubtless, and well within our grasp. New York's art scene and all of the important existential aspects of life are present in their full glory, and Siri Hustvedt presents them with an intimate, honest, emotionally intelligent grace. I'm confident in recommending this novel. I'm going to read it again and give it residency in my permanent collection.
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