May 2008

Sean P. Carroll


An Interview with Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt’s work occupies a unique niche in the literary landscape. Her first novel, The Blindfold (1992) chronicles the unusual exploits of Iris Vegan, a young graduate student in New York City. The fractured narrative episodes are clearly representative of Iris’s identity issues. Siri’s second novel, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), is set in Hustvedt’s home state of Minnesota and traverses the physical and emotional territory unique to the almost-but-not quite adult heroine as well as exploring the mysteries that permeate the small town of Webster. While these two novels are accomplished in their own right, What I Loved (2003) is a powerful and complex saga that charts the quarter of a century relationship between two families inexorably intertwined by the binary fates of love and loss. She has also published two books of essays, Yonder (1998) and A Plea for Eros (2006); as well as a collection of poetry, Reading to You (1983) and a book about painting, The Mysteries of the Rectangle (2005).

The Sorrows of an American, published by Henry Holt, opens with a mysterious letter found by Inga and Erik Davidsen amongst their late father’s papers. This message is the beginning of “the year of secrets” which unfolds to reveal myriad mysteries that threaten to capsize the lives and subsume the identities of Erik, Inga and their loved ones. Hustvedt builds on the themes of her earlier work while crafting a unique story that gives equal weight to the living and the voices of the dead that echo and define them.

This interview was conducted via e-mail in the middle of April.

The Sorrows of an American is a very moving novel of loss, both personal and universal in scope. How do you adequately convey the complexity of this theme without it overwhelming the carefully constructed narrative arc?

The theme of ghosts is announced in the first paragraph of The Sorrows of an American. Although there are stories unfolding in the novel’s present, much of the book’s action takes place in memory, in dreams, and in texts: the diary, the memoir, a story and film written by Max Blaustein, and letters. In some way, nearly every person in the book is haunted. (Even a minor character like Mr. T. is tormented by the voices of those who have died.) The dead have disappeared from the perceptual world but continue to live on inside those who remember them or in the words or images left behind. The categories of the past and the present intermingle freely in the novel and the organization of the material was determined by recurring themes -- absence as presence being one of them. As I was writing, I began to think of the novel as a fugue, with point and counterpoint, with phrases that reappear but in different contexts and may refer to different characters. For example: It’s something about Dad. I did not make a map of the narrative. Nothing was preordained. The repetitions, the movement from one passage to another, the reverberations among the various stories came to me as I worked. It felt both musical and corporeal. From time to time I found myself rocking as I wrote.

In this book and your previous novel, What I Loved, you have written, quite masterfully, from a masculine perspective. In your essay “Being A Man,” you address this issue as, “…not an act of translation.” Please talk about some of the challenges and rewards of writing from this viewpoint.

After writing What I Loved from the point of view of a man, I realized that it was so pleasant that I would do it again, this time as a younger man, someone in full sexual bloom. Writing as a man is not an act of translation but means becoming a man while you are working, not unlike an actor becoming his role. I truly believe that most of us have men and women within us and can hear the voices of both sexes, as well as feel the nuanced and sometimes blatant differences between them. A male voice necessarily carries more authority that a woman’s simply because as a culture we give men that privilege. As a woman, I take pleasure in adopting the dominant male tone and assuming a central role, but I have also found that wrenching my perspective away from the feminine, I’ve been able to discover feelings, images, and thoughts I wouldn’t have had without the transformation. The sexual torment of unrequited love that Erik experiences is certainly not exclusive to men, but male and female libido are not identical (women don’t imagine men naked many times a day, for example), and I felt great sympathy for my poor Erik as he lusts after the elusive Miranda.

There is some overlap of characters and locales within your fictional universe. Leo Hertzberg, from What I Loved, and the Ideal Café, from The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, both appear in your new book. Also, Inga shares several character traits with Iris Vegan, the protagonist of The Blindfold. Are your books part of the world as we know it or do you see them more as a terrain that is familiar but not exactly real?

Yes, I missed Leo terribly and felt compelled to bring him back. So there he is at a dinner party from the third person perspective -- blind and dear and a little shrunken because, of course, Erik can’t know the worlds that are inside Leo Hertzberg. Leo and Inga become friends, and I am glad that she lets him touch her. The Ideal Café still exists in my hometown of Northfield, Minnesota, although they may now serve Mexican food. It’s such a beautiful name, a philosophical name, and because Lily’s Webster and Erik and Inga’s Blooming Field are both linked to Northfield in my mind, the café seems to pop up. The café, the rolling flats of the Midwestern landscape, specific streets and buildings in New York have all become part of my internal fictional geography. Both Iris and Inga are versions of myself, one told in the first person, the other in the third. This is not to say that I actually am either one of them, but that I drew from my own personality, nerves and some experiences to create them. Interestingly, looking at Inga from Erik’s perspective helped make her a little comic. Comedy is always made from a distance.

There are several complex mother-daughter relationships in Sorrows, Inga & Sonia, Marit & Inga, as well as Miranda & Eglantine. Also, the book is dedicated to your daughter Sophie. Would it be fair to say that an underlying theme of this book is an exploration of the stages and evolution of the mother-daughter dynamic?

Yes, you’re right. Although the grand theme in the book is about fathers, missing fathers mostly (Eggy’s father, Lane, returns, but he isn’t as she imagined him to be and this creates a good deal of psychic havoc for her), the mothers and daughters in the book are very important. As Erik says, he recognizes what he calls an overlap in these mother/daughter pairs. The intimacy, the attunement, the identification between a mother and daughter are all matters for ongoing emotional negotiation. Eggy strives for independence and separation from her mother but at the same time she dreads them. Miranda has to respect her child’s needs and reassure her continually of her love. The wounded Sonia needs her mother terribly, but is afraid that they are so close that Inga won’t be able to bear her daughter’s pain. The test comes on the second anniversary of 9/11 when Sonia breaks down, and her mother carries her through it. They both survive intact. Inga and Marit are at another stage of their relation, I think. They are linked by a long and passionate connection.

Erik and Inga were born in Minnesota but now make New York City their home. How do these very different landscapes, both mental and physical, impact their identities as individuals and as siblings?

Erik and Inga’s Minnesota belongs both to them and to their father. Their mother’s beloved landscape is in Norway. Although the siblings return to Minnesota, it has become for both of them more an internal landscape than an external one -- the remembered terrain of childhood -- the most poignant image of which is their grandparents’ small white farmhouse that juts up from the flat open land around it. The house has become a sign of both their happy play as children and the psychic scars it left on their grandfather and father. Erik and Inga have each found a place in the city and an escape from the sometimes pinched populism and intolerant equalitarianism of their native Midwest. As Inga says, the two have become “card-carrying urbanites.”

You have written several essays and a book, Mysteries of the Rectangle, about the potency of art. Can you express the impact and influence of the visual on your fiction and vice-versa?

Images and words are different, although words can summon pictures and pictures can be fixed in the mind through words. It seems clear that as human beings we are hardwired to acquire both language and coherent images, which shapes broader perception. It’s interesting that some people with visual deficits even complete blindness, experience vivid imagery, not unlike the scenes we manufacture in our dreams. My fascination with visual art began in my childhood, when I drew obsessively and has continued into the present. A painting carries emotional meaning in a different way from a text. For one thing, all the information is there at once, and I enjoy analyzing and unpacking its effects on me. But my imagination is strongly visual. I am always “seeing” my characters as I write, and the artists in my novels make images that express what they are unable to say in words. In fact, a mental image was a catalyst for Sorrows. Before writing the book, I saw a girl lying in her coffin in the tiny living room of a farmhouse. Then as I kept looking, she sat up. I had no idea what this meant or why it returned to me until much later. It was rather like being a spectator of a very brief film clip that was played over and over.

How do you feel your authorial voice has developed from the episodic vignettes of The Blindfold to the more intricate plot structures of What I Loved and The Sorrows of an American?

This is a good but hard question to answer. I honestly think that I have always worked at my limit. When I was writing The Blindfold, I labored over each story inside the novel. Each part was written several times and then they were fit together as a fractured whole that seemed to reflect the character of Iris herself, a person not yet welded together. I could never have written What I Loved or The Sorrows of an American when I was younger. I did not have the experience, the intellectual maturity or the understanding to manage that level of complexity. With each novel, I have tried to push myself beyond what came before it, and this means many failures and revisions. At the same time, it seems that I am always learning how to make a book, feeling my way forward with whatever I have at my disposal…

Erik is a psychoanalyst by trade and there are several instances in the book of stark, even arresting, dream imagery. Do these visions offer a needed counterbalance to the tightly controlled lives of your characters? What sort of inspiration do you draw from your own subconscious?

Now that I’ve had to talk about my book at some length and in different situations, I agree with you that in the novel there’s a tug-of-war between a waking life of tight narrative control and order and the uninhibited world of dreams and traumatic images. At the very beginning of the book when Lars Davidsen’s desk and papers are described, it’s clear that he was a man who treasured order. He was also a man haunted by the intractable poverty of his childhood and the carnage he witnessed during the Second World War, in particular the “unnecessary killing” of a Japanese officer that returned to him in dreams and flashbacks. Sonia’s response to what she saw on September 11th, 2001 from her classroom window is not unlike her grandfather’s yen for perfect arrangements. She throws herself into compulsive neatness and her school studies to keep the demons of death and mutilation at bay. From a psychiatric perspective, such solutions make sense but are ineffective.

Traumatic material, it seems, is stored differently in the brain from ordinary autobiographical memories and is prone to return in horrific surges that replay the experience. These reenactments aren’t verbal but emotional and sometimes visual. They exist outside our biographical narratives, which are safely behind us. These ugly nonsensical fragments turn the past into the present because they aren’t remembered but relived. The novel’s real secrets lie in these hard-to-articulate bits and pieces, not in the plot machinery that leads the characters to anticlimactic revelations. But the only hope for all of them is to try to pull the wounded or bandaged place into a story. This is Eggy’s impulse. She carries around her string so she can tie together what’s broken and falling apart. Erik’s patient Ms. W. encapsulates the book in miniature. Her fear of rage and madness in herself has made her so deliberate and wooden, she has banned spontaneity from her life. When she sees a photograph of her analyst wielding a hammer, his face furious and deranged, she is terrified because looking at him is like looking in the mirror. Although she never consciously perceives the hammer, it appears in her dream. She uses it to beat Erik, but miraculously, the violence doesn’t hurt him and he survives the assault. When Ms. W. relates the dream to Erik, she tames her terror in words, and her relief is immense. She feels reincarnated. Although I understand now how this small story is related to the novel as a whole, I didn’t know it when I was writing it. It simply welled up in me, part of the strange underground that produced the book -- certainly from that region we call the unconscious.

Tell me about the decision to utilize the intensely personal, in this case your late father’s memoir, as one of the emotional centerpieces of the book.

This question about my father takes us back to the picture of the girl sitting up in her coffin. I believe that the impulse behind using my father’s text was to somehow resurrect him. I wanted to keep him alive by including his own real words in the book. Forms of burial and resurrection and sleeping and waking keep coming back in the book: the baby girl Ingeborg buried on the prairie in a cigar box, Lisa’s still-born child, the game of sleeping princess Inga and Erik play as children, Eggy’s rising from a coma, Ms. W.’s reincarnation. It’s an impossible wish of course. We can’t revive the dead, but we can renew and heal ourselves in this life. The epigraph from Rumi speaks to that: “Don’t turn away. Keep looking at that bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” At the very end, Erik finds some light. The turn is made when he finds that he is carrying his father’s depression within himself and is finally able to let it go, at least temporarily, which transforms “his ghost into an ancestor,” as Hans Leowald wrote in an essay Magda quotes in the novel.

Do you feel that superlative fiction rewards the reader with a more profound truth than reality does? What role do fiction, fables, and story have in contemporary society?

The older I get, the more I realize that I’m a phenomenologist. I’ve been rereading Merleau-Ponty and trying to get something out of the very difficult Husserl. I do know what interests me is human experience, always lived from a first-person point of view. Reality does not consist in “things in themselves” seen from a suprahuman perspective, but our shared intersubjective universe which is not only about things out there as we perceive them -- trees and fields and cities and other people, but also the stories, myths, fables, countless books and artworks and music that shape our world. I wrote once about an experience with a book I loved. I closed Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan and said to myself, “This is better than life,” and was rather shocked at myself. I am less shocked now. I don’t really think that loving great books can be separated from loving life.

Earlier in this interview we spoke about writing from a masculine viewpoint. I understand that your next project is going to be centered on a group of women. Can you provide some more information on this nascent work?

It is all about women, but if I talk about it, I will harden an unwritten book and that would be bad. It’s still in flux.

There seems to be a tone of outrage hovering at the margins of Sorrows. Is this due to the various conflicts within the novel or is it also a result of writing effectively and passionately in present-day America?

You’re right again! Inga’s irritation with American culture borders on outrage and reflects my own criticisms of life in the United States today. I once considered writing a book called Culture Nausea (which I proceeded to give to Inga) in which I planned to rail against media cant, rampant anti-intellectualism, political verbiage, the revolting trampling over the rule of law, the wholesale adoption of received ideas without the slightest examination, the lust for the ugly confession, and innumerable other thorns in my side. Alas, I am one of those people who everyday writes a vituperative letter to the editor in my mind. The actual letter never gets written, but sometimes the sentiments expressed in that imaginary missive find their way into a novel.