The Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt
Bibliography, Siri Hustvedt
- The Blindfold (1992)
- The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996)
- What I Loved (2003)
- The Sorrows of an American (2008)
- The Shaking Woman (2010)
- The Summer Without Men (2011)
- Reading to You (1983)
- Yonder (1998)
- Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting (2005)
- A Plea for Eros (2005)
Siri Hustvedt is an Norwegian-American writer (born 1955 in Minnesota). She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, the writer Paul Auster, and their daughter, singer and actress Sophie Auster.
See also: Summer Without Men reviewed in NYT
The Sorrows of an American is interesting for a number of reasons. One reason is that Siri Hustvedt’s main character is a male. This is a first in her novels, but I think she pulls it off nicely. A second reason is the many personal and to some extent distasteful things that are exposed in the novel. Given that the novel seems to draw heavily on the author’s personal history, I guess readers will forever wonder what is Siri Hustvedt or her family, and what is pure fiction among these exposures.
The novel begins with Erik Davidsen, a New York psychoanalyst and the narrator in the book, and his sister Inga. They are taking care of their father's belongings in Minnesota after his death. While doing this, they find a partially-written memoir along with a very strange letter. The letter indicates unknown secrets in their father's past.
Having returned to post 9/11 New York – a city with much grief - Erik and Inga try to learn more about the mystery of their father's past. Erik is a recently divorced psychoanalyst, lonely and a little depressed. Inga and her daughter grieve over her husband's (Max, a famous novelist) death and the trauma of witnessing the 9/11 attacks. They both live complicated big city lives. And, to complicate matters further, they both become involved in the lives of new lovers. Inga becomes intimately involved with the man writing Max’s biography, and Erik increasingly becomes obsessed with one of his tenants, a woman named Miranda, a Jamaican artist.
To a large extent The Sorrows of an American is a novel about identity, change and redefinition. The main characters find, to their surprise, that those they loved were not quite the people they thought they were. Their histories as individuals change. How does this affect them? And, of course, the more sorrows and unknowns they uncover in their father’s past, the more they have to face and deal with in their own lives.
There are many extremely witty and interesting observations in this book, for example, when Erik discusses his problems with the world of psychiatry with Inga. He feels it is sad that patients in institutions are now referred to as 'customers'. 'That's revolting,' says Inga. 'That's America,' replies Erik.
Siri Hustvedt has a way with words and language. The book is written with what a reviewer called “spare Scandinavian elegance”. She is a pleasure to read. However, this is a complicated and intelligent novel. There are many things to keep track of, and much that needs pondering even in the smallest details. As well, the novel moves back and forth in time, and sometimes digresses. Thus it is not an easy novel to read.
The story is evocative, multi-dimensional and as complex as life itself. Her examination of the role of personal fictions is intriguing. The Sorrows of an American is a “smart” book that provokes thinking. To my mind a great but demanding read!
Praise for The Sorrows of an American:
It is a rare writer who can both rouse the mind and grip the heart, and all the while provide the sensuous delights of image and language -- Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent
[Hustvedt] takes unapologetic delight in intellectual characters who understand their lives through far-ranging reading and lively conversation -- Sylvia Brownrigg, New York Times Book Review
.. a masterful semi-self-portrait by turns abstract and realistic, intimate and alienating, effulgent and bleak, concise and blurry, straightforward and elusive -- Sarah Emily Miano, Times
The Blindfold tells the story of Iris Vegan, a young graduate student in literature at Columbia University in New York. The story is told in four interwoven shorter stories.
Iris is bright and troubled. In the book, she narrates her own story. In the first she works for a mysterious writer who wants her to write detailed descriptions of small items which had belonged to a young woman brutally murdered in the man’s apartment building.
In the second story Hustvedt shows us an affair Vegan has with a fellow student and a troubled, restrained friendship with his best friend.
The third story takes place in a hospital where she is treated for her migraine, and the strange relationship between Iris and the patients she shares her room with.
In the final story she forms a sexual relationship with a professor while doing a translation of a rather sadistic German short story. Iris lives out the story by walking the streets of New York nighttime dressed as a young man, and then after a while bonds with the professor.
The books is immensely creative and intriguing, but also dark and disturbing. It constitutes a penetrating investigation of an unstable, deeply troubled, insecure and seeking mind. The Blindfold, I think, is the veil Iris places between her emotions and the persons she interacts with, and which only is let down briefly in a few instances. The book made me uncomfortable. I think I strongly disliked the main character. She is, at some fundamental level, extremely dishonest. She expects straight behavior from others, but actually turns relationships to others off and on as she wants, is manipulative, and lies and deceives friends and lovers alike.
But The Blindfold is a well crafted, excellently written book, and is disturbing enough to provoke thought. It has been described as a "postmodernist puzzle with a queasy eroticism and hints of perversion." It is deep, ugly and chilling. An amazing debut book by Siri Hustvedt!
Also by Siri Hustvedt from amazon US: The Enchantment of Lily Dahl.