Fiction & Biography
LITERARY DRAMA SIRI HUSTVEDT
What I Loved (Sceptre $214.99) 0...
Literary couples have been stealing the headlines lately. With Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin up for the Whitbread this month and John Bayley’s celebrated portrayal of Iris Murdoch last year, a bit of high-minded pillow talk can be a winning chemistry. And so step forward New York’s own half of a romantic literary coupling: Siri Hustvedt. Married to author Paul Auster, their story is one of true love set against the background of New York.
On 23 February 1981, both attended a poetry reading on 92nd Street; eyes met across a room of chin-stroking New Yorkers and it was love at J V first sight. Auster has commemorated the date in Leviathan in which Peter meets Iris (read '_ I
backwards) and has dedicated books to his
missus. What I Loved is, by way of
reciprocation, dedicated to Paul Auster.
But what about the book? It is Hustvedt’s
third major novel and takes her away from the small town locations she’s written of, which worked as physical settings and psychological
contexts for close, erotically charged
frustrations and yearnings. Now Hustvedt writes
from life over the last 20 years in the Big Apple. What I Loved focuses on the lives of five central characters: an artist, an artist’s model, a poet, a literary academic and an art historian. Their lives are drawn together when an unearthed painting triggers an enduring fascination.
Such a prompt for friendship and the line-up of characters could suggest a highly esoteric novel. Artists on art have a tendency to be overly cerebral often resulting in horrible pretension. But Hustvedt is a consummate storyteller who is very much connected to desires and physicality, here revealing a greatly compassionate yet strictly unsentimental
understanding of human relations.
Deepening bonds of friendship take an affirmative direction in What I Loved. But then something terrible happens and the event causes a chasm where nothing will ever be the same again. It is possible to read this rift as a psychological effect of 11 September on a personal scale but it's difﬁcult to tell when and at what stage the writing took place. Whatever the inspiration, the novel shifts dramatically, leaving behind a quasi-golden age and Iurching into a distinctly sinister world. Relationships
ANNE DONOVAN Buddha Da (Canongate £9.99) 0...
Bittersweet and believable
90 THE LIST 16—30 Jan 2003
,. : rewardith-novcli ' it-;mesmerizes. arouses. V‘disturb‘s‘.‘ SALMAN RUSHDIF.
Hustvedt dreams up a gripping New York
Canongate topped off 2002 in fine style thanks to the Booker winning Life of Pi and the singular success that was Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. Based on this assured first novel from award- winning short-story writer Anne Donovan. the year to come will yield further deserved glory for the Edinburgh publishing house. Donovan's debut starts out looking like a straightforward culture clash comedy when gentle. light-hearted Maryhill husband and dad Jimmy returns home one day and announces that he has taken up meditation. This unexpected news is met with a response from his nearest and dearest that might have been more sympathetic had he revealed a new found interest in kiddie porn. As the story unfolds. eloquently related in first person dialect by the main characters — Jimmy, his perplexed wife Liz and patient teenage daughter Anne Marie — Donovan convincingly conveys the predicaments and side effects that
falter, mutate, evaporate and grow, while a menacing force dictates the lives with relentless tyranny.
l-lustvedt writes with impressive lucidity, plotting a great tale that at times moves into the territory of a thriller. Her New York is a gripping one, painting a picture of life in artistic circles and infusing it with compelling drama. But it remains to the end a place where you can well imagine two like minds meeting, loving and surviving.
arise when a person seeks to change their life for the better.
As Jimmy moves from his half- hearted flirtation with the mindfulness of breathing to a cathartic quest for inner peace and a deeper self- awareness. Liz (herself harbouring a long-buried emotional trauma in need of confronting) grows increasingly impatient with him. Indeed. at certain key moments in Jimmy's voyage of self-discovery — such as the scene in which the hitherto canny painter and decorator appreciates for the first time the pattern raindrops follow on a leaf — readers too may find their own scepticism tested to the limit.
Yet. while the author extends a consistent generosity to her characters. she generally refrains from excessive sentimentality, making the bittersweet tale that follows wholly believable. And it's this unostentatious familiarity, coupled with the universality of her story that makes Donovan's novel resonate with a quiet power. A joy to read. (Allan Radcliffe)
Classic novels revisited. This issue: The Little Prince
Published 60 years ago.
What’s the story The protagonist of Antoine de Saint-Exupery‘s enchanting illustrated masterpiece is. like his creator. a pilot. who crash-lands in the Sahara desert. There he meets a childlike blond mopped alien prince who regales him with tales of his home planet. and outlines his lonely mission to travel the universe in his spaceship in order to discover the meaning of life. Having made a profound impression on the pilot. the prince decides to return home and the pilot manages to continue his j0urney.
Key moment Throughout the conversation that forms the bulk of the story. the tiny prince imparts poignant epithets. But it's not until he departs for home that he bequeaths his most valuable message to the pilot: ‘lt is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.‘
Postcript Antoine de Saint-Exupery died in 1944. aged 43. a year after Le Petit Prince was published. ironically perishing when his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean during a World War II mission. His death robbed him of the chance to see his novel become the third most widely read book of the 20th century. after the Bible and the Ku'ran. First line test ‘Once when l was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book. called True Stories from Nature. about the primeval forest.“ (Allan Radcliffe)
The Little Prrlzce