This book ran me over with its restrained intensity, its insight, and its near-perfect execution. Here are my splattered thoughts from 2005 when I read it.
She is married to my favourite author, Paul Auster, and yet until now I have not read her. I may have to admit she is as good as him, or better. I wonder if they get insecure.
Indeed, it’s got the same themes as some of Auster’s work – two artistic couples pulling against each other, the love and friendship and lust, and (sometime) infidelities [a common source?] – and I’m thinking here particularly of Auster’s work in Leviathan, a companion novel in so many ways.
In fact, if Auster had put his name to What I Loved, I would have accepted without question that he’d written it.
But the book, her not him; indeed, I meet more people who have read her than him, and I may be jealous.
I wanted to write about the ironic couplings: she writes about Leo writing about Bill who has painted a picture of Violet which he calls ‘Self Portrait’. Leo/Siri comments how the title gets us thinking about the nature of selfhood, and how a portrait of another person of another gender could possibly be a self portrait. We the readers can add another level – how can Siri write so convincingly and reveal so much of her soul through the eyes of a male art critic (Leo) writing of his friendship with a male painter (Bill)?
I like the scope of the book; it isn’t a simple narrative, it has the breadth and complexity of life. It is twenty five years in the lives of the two couples, which are really two and a half couples, since Violet displaces Lucille, and then really it’s about their sons anyway, Matthew and Mark (I was expecting Luke and John, but the pun was only superficial, or only co-incidental.)
And the last section made the novel feel like a Brett Easton Ellis novel told from the pov of one of the sane characters. There is the same shifting identities, extremities of violence, sex and drugs. The same world, it seemed to me. Only in New York do these things happen, you see.
And it got me wondering as to whether Siri and Paul know Brett, and what they think of his work. Because they might hate it, or they might like it.
The crazed ‘artist’, Teddy Giles, and his favourite movie Psycholand (about a psychopath who goes from state to state in his private plane murdering a person in each city) made me think of him, wonder whether there was some injoke in operation here.
And the other novel it made me think of, just to complete a parallel literary couple, is Donna Tartt’s Secret History. There is the same sense of a middle class descent into the dark side, into madness. There is the same concern for art, life, meaning.
The title bears more thinking about. It is explained by Violet at the end where she asks what it is that she loved. Was it Mark or the idea of Mark? I feel like I haven’t understood Siri properly here. But the title sounds elegaic, sounds like the book feels, this beautiful remembrance of things past.
Once I got into this book – which did take ninety pages, but that had more to do with me than it – I found it compulsive, un-putt-downable. I cared and wondered about the fate of the characters – even the minor ones.
It should be made into a film, and by a great director. I think Sofia Coppola.