Siri Hustvedt: The tricks of the mind

Siri Hustvedt: The tricks of the mind

Five years after her success with the novel What I Loved, American writer Siri Hustvedt has returned with a fresh tale of creative exploration and subtle psychology set among the intellectual elite of New York. The Sorrows of an American (Sceptre, May) features Erik, a psychiatrist mourning the death of his father by immersing himself in the journal his parent has left behind— a journal which hints at a long-hidden secret. Erik is also beset by an unrequited passion for Miranda, a single mother who has moved in downstairs and who is being stalked in a particularly sinister way by a photographer ex-lover. Meanwhile, Erik's sister Inga, the widow of Max, an eminent writer, is threatened with the exposure of apparently compromising letters from her late husband.

As Erik explores the complexities of his patients' psyches and suffers the discomfort of his own erotic obsession, the novel is also filled by a formidable sense of unease and menace, and the memory of trauma from the events of 9/11.

Speaking over the phone from the Brooklyn home she shares with her writer husband Paul Auster, Hustvedt says that it was the experience of losing her father that prompted her novel. In a bold move, she has used actual passages from her own father's memoir of his childhood and wartime experience in the book. "I was thinking about the book before he died, when it was very clear to me that I was losing him. That was when I asked him if I could use some parts of the memoir he had written for family and friends in my novel, and he said yes. I think the years of writing the book were in some way an attempt to deal with the grief I felt after my father died. Those feelings do not end— I'm not talking about 'closure' as they say in the United States, it's a word I really detest and I don't think these memories or losses get closed— but I do think they go through changes."

The novel includes a central passage about the killing of a Japanese officer, witnessed by her father: "I think that story is a real traumatic moment, and I realised that there is this traumatic theme that runs through the book."

Hustvedt shows a fascination with the curious workings of the mind, whether it's in the dreams and delusions of Erik's patients, or his sister Inga's history of headaches and hallucinations. Hustvedt's own experience of migraines suffered since childhood has influenced her, she says. "For a brief time I had auditory hallucinations; I never became psychotic, but that can accompany chronic migraines. You wonder why you are the way you are, how do people evolve, and how do these physiological characteristics become embedded in the personality?"

She's intrigued by the deceptions of memory: "Memory isn't fixed; it's a kind of changing business, because neurobiologically they are really sure that when you retrieve a memory, what you are retrieving is not the original memory, but the last time you retrieved it. I have an early memory which dates back to when I was four, of sitting around with my extended family in Norway, when my older cousin started crying; I patted her arm to comfort her and all the adults started laughing. I felt deeply humiliated. At a certain moment I was pulling out this memory again and I realised the place I was seeing this memory was in the house my aunt moved to well after that memory took place— I replaced the memory, quite unconsciously, into the house I recognised."

The partnership between Auster and Hustvedt is of long standing. They met in the early 1980s, when by all accounts Auster was swiftly captivated by the six-foot blonde. Now, the couple, and their daughter Sophie, form a close-knit trio. Of course the fact that Hustvedt's new novel describes a marriage between a woman and a hugely celebrated writer will draw comment. While Inga is proud that the world adores the man she chose as a husband, she resents the fact that she has so often been brushed aside as a mere addendum to the great man.

Hustvedt laughs: "Obviously I don't think I could have created that character if I didn't have insights into the sort of external drama of the great male writer, the fans and the semi-hysterical moments that I have definitely lived through with my husband. So there is borrowing— but Max is a very different kind of person."