My sister called it the ‘year of secrets,’

Dear Siri,

In your novel The Sorrows of an American (2008), we are led by a narrator whose emotional balance is about to implode.

 siri-hustvedt

Erik Davidsen is a psychiatrist of Norwegian descent, whose father has just passed away. Recently divorced and extremely lonely, Erik is haunted by the voices of his patients – and his ancestors. Among the papers left by Lars, his father, Erik and his sister Inga find an enigmatic note, written by an unknown person: “Dear Lars, I know you will never say anything about what happened. It can not matter now she’s in heaven or the ones here on earth.” This note, whose meaning and authorship are difficult to trace back, serves as an impelling force for Erik and Inga. Because of it, they decide to explore the past of their immigrant family, which is interspersed, in a fragmented narrative, with a somewhat turbulent present time, marked by the attacks of 11 September 2001 and by the war in Iraq.

The mysterious note kept by Lars for over 50 years seems to threaten the fragile balance of the Davidsen family – and especially our protagonist’s balance. Erik bequeathed an oldnoteb ook, written by Lars, through which he maintains with his father a dialogue that crosses time and death. The details and secrets of his father’s life, during the Great Depression and later during World War II, take hold of the reflections of our narrator, and the plot then unfolds under an atmosphere of mourning and melancholy, punctuated by passages of Lars’ journals; by fragments of Erik’s dreams and dialogues with his patients; and by reflections on the nature of mind and memory as mechanisms by which “the dead act upon the living.”

As this mysterious past seems to haunt Erik, his present life also becomes progressively complicated. Erik is a lonely man, and he promptly falls in love with Miranda, a graphic designer of Jamaican ancestry who is his neighbour in Brooklyn. Miranda is unmarried and has a daughter, Englantine, a five-year-old girl whose father seems to have disappeared. To make matters more complicated, Miranda is chased by a strange stalker. Erik will quickly become a victim of this persecutor, who will make our narrator see, mirrored in a photo of his face taken at random, a moment of violence – a violence the more exposed because repressed.

The life of Erik’s sister, Inga, is also lonely – and complicated. While writing a book on philosophy, she tries to overcome the death of her husband, Max Blaustein, an iconic, well-educated writer whose life has been searched by an academic and by a journalist. Twenty-two years older than Inga, Max was an obsessive womanizer. The couple’s daughter, the teenager Sonia, is struggling with nightmares caused by having witnessed the events of September 11 from the school window. To make matters worse, a decaying actress contacts Inga, claiming to have had a child with Max, and saying that she is in possession of intimate letters whose content would destroy the reputation of the famous writer. A journalist discovers this story, goes on to chase Inga and Sonia, and finds herself later pursued by Burton, an Erik’s ex- colleague, who was eternally in love with Inga. In a misguided attempt to protect her, Burton begins to see himself as a kind of private detective.

In this somewhat fanciful plot of mutual persecution, in which everyone is haunted by the past, no character is immune to ridicule. They seem to be described through a tenuous line between derision and affection, with sometimes hilarious or sometimes poignant results. Your haughty descriptions provide a pleasure apart, and illuminate, with a certain black humor, the intimate dramas of each character. Erik and Inga try to trace the strange note kept by their father; Inga (and Burton) try to unravel the mystery surrounding the nosy journalist, as well as the whereabouts of the love letters guarded by the blackmailing actress; Erik finds himself entangled in the psychotic plot of Miranda’s stalker, while he traces his family’s past past in his father’s memoir. “What used to be does not leave us,” observes Erik Davidsen, “It’s odd that we’re all compelled to repeat pain.”

Interwoven with the plot shenanigans, we have the memories left by Erik’s father. They describe a hard life on a farm in the Minnesota countryside during the 1920s, as well as a terrible experience Lars had as a combatant in Southeast Asia during World War II. I am aware that you once said that the memoir passages reproduced in the book are real: they are the memoirs written by your father, who died in 2003.

Another interesting point of the book is the fact that the plot is interspersed with reflections about philosophy, psychoanalysis and art. In The Sorrows of an American, dialogues between Erik (psychiatrist) and Inga (philosophy scholar) are often punctuated by the relationship (and conflict) between philosophy of mind and psychoanalysis. Some of the ideas that drive your previous novels are also present here: the incessant search for one’s own identity; the gaps and revelations produced by the written word (often in the form of letters); the voyeurism of art and artists. Moreover, Leo Hertzberg, narrator of What I Loved (2003) and his friend Lazlo Finkelman appear briefly in one of the scenes of The Sorrows of an American.

The title of the book seems to refer to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther), am I right? It also mirrors the disappointments of each of the characters: Lars and his losses during the Depression and during the War; the disappointments of Erik, his sister, Sonia, Miranda and Eglantine, and even the psychiatrist’s patients’ troubles. All these pains are, in a sense, entwined in the plot – and in the fragile spirit of our narrator. They all point out to the collapse of the American dream, the American illusion.

The book only loses momentum in its second half, and the resolution of the various mysteries that make up the plot is considerably anti-climatic. However, the strength of your novel lies in the subtlety of your writing – which, by interweaving dream, memory, letters and dialogues, creates a thick texture of lived matter. The novel manages to balance, at one and the same time, a familiar saga with touches of horror, a thriller and a comedy of costumes in New York. Although it assumes indirectly political connotations, and covers September 11, the Iraq war and conflicts involving immigration, the tone of the book is introspective, and the focus is thrown largely on Erik’s inner landscape.

All the characters in the book learn to live with inner cracks inhabited by ghosts; they weave and spin and unravel their personal fictions, according to the illusions they need at the moment. In The Sorrows of an American, you explore some of these fictions, digging deep into the gap between your character’s public personas and their private identities, and exposing them to the reader – and to themselves. Oddly enough, death and collapse, in the novel, are seen as ways in which this gap can be forced into healing; as (incommunicable, hard, solitary) ways of re-creating a past and an identity from the raw material of haunting ghosts and enigmas.

Yours truly,

J.


Caspar David Friedrich. "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog" (German: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), also known as "Wanderer Above the Mist" or "Mountaineer in a misty Landscape". c. 1818.
Caspar David Friedrich. “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (German: Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer), also known as “Wanderer Above the Mist” or “Mountaineer in a misty Landscape”. c. 1818.

“My sister called it the ‘year of secrets,’ but when I look back on it now, I’ve come to undertsand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn’t.” – Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American

“My solitude had gradually begun to alter me, to turn me into a man I had not expected. (…) I’ve often thought that none of us is what we imagine, that each of us normalizes the terrible strangeness of inner life with a variety of convenient fictions.” – Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American

“That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed.” ― Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American

“I’ve always thought of wholeness and integration as necessary myths. We’re gragmented beings who cement ourselves together, but there are always cracks. Living with the cracks is part of being, well, reasonably healthy.”
― Siri Hustvedt, The Sorrows of an American


About the book

  • Henry Holt & Company, 2008, 306 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars
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