REVIEW | The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt

image via the Strand website

image via the Strand website

title: The Sorrows of an American [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Siri Hustvedt
genre: literary fiction
pages: 306
published: 2008

“I know that my father’s absence had prompted this need to document myself, but as my pen moved over the pages, I understood something else: I wanted to answer the words he had written with my own. I was talking to a dead man.” (page 22-23)

Recently, I’ve started exploring Siri Hustvedt’s essay collection Living, Thinking, Looking, and here’s what I’ve discovered:  Hustvedt is my kind of author.  Not only does she has a doctorate in English, she’s incredibly curious and has researched, written and lectured extensively on a variety of topics such as neuroscience and art.  For me, she embodies the spirit of the intellectual explorer.  LOVE. THAT.

In one of her essays, she references her novel The Sorrows of an American, and my interest was instantly piqued, as the novel seemed to draw of key parts of Hustvedt’s life.  And there are absolutely the footsteps of her personal experiences in the piece.  In fact, something she said in the author’s note of Living, Thinking, Looking resonated with me:

“No one can truly escape her or his subjectivity.  There is always an I or a we hiding somewhere in the text, even when it does not appear as a pronoun.” (xi)

Even though she’s speaking specifically about research and journalism, I think that statement can also be applied to fiction.  As writers, we can never really divorce ourselves and our experiences from the creative process.  Whether we mean to or not, we bring our whole selves to the party, so why not embrace it?

There are multiple parallels to Hustvedt’s own life in the novel:

  • Inga suffers from migraines, which Hustvedt also experiences
  • Inga is married to a writer, Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster
  • Hustvedt is of Norwegian descent, as are Erik and Inga  (in fact, she excerpted pieces of her own father’s memoir to use as Lars’ memoir in the text, and the story of “Dave the Pencil Man” is actually the story of her great-uncle David)
  • Hustvedt’s father’s name is Lloyd, the father in the novel is Lars…her daughter is named Sophie, and the daughter in the story is Sonia

Ok, maybe that last bullet is a stretch 😉  But my point is that knowing these things about Hustvedt absolutely enriched the reading experience for me, much like knowing David Foster Wallace was a ranked tennis player as a child makes reading his essay “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” that much more enjoyable. But that’s just me.  I like being able to peek into the mind of the author.  Others prefer not to know how the sausage is made.  To each their own.

The Sorrows of an American is a quick read.  The plot follows psychiatrist Erik Davidsen and the narrative alternates between scenes from his life in New York and scenes from the journals of his recently deceased father, Lars.  The multiple plots hinge on a series of secrets:  secrets Lars may have kept from his wife, Erik’s mother; secrets Erik’s tenant is keeping from him about the father of her child and his role in their life; secrets Erik’s sister Inga’s deceased husband kept from her and their daughter. Each vignette is short, and I found myself reading late into the night several times, thinking “just one more page or two…” until it was 1am…or later… The characters were easy to care about, and I found the family history aspect of the novel fascinating.  I liked the construct of Hustvedt casting Erik Davidsen as a psychiatrist, because it enabled his observations of himself and others to venture more organically into the clinical and allowed him to express a level of insight that said profession made it natural for him to possess.  He was the perfect vehicle for Hustvedt’s level of intelligence and perspicacity.  There were a few aspects of the plot that I did find a bit too convenient (the entire ordeal with Burton, for example), but, that said, I was willing to forgive it because the writing itself was so beautiful.  Her cadence and style gave the piece as a whole a quiet, meditative aspect that really struck a chord with me.  Comme ça:

“That night I dreamed I was on the farm, standing near the grape arbor to the left of the outhouse, looking toward the broad rolling fields ahead of me.  The dream was colorless.  I saw everything in shades of gray.  My father was there beside me, but I had no clear image of him, except that he was erect and still young. Although his figure was obscure, I felt him, knew that he stood several feet away from me and was also looking west.  Then, as we watched, an explosion burst on the distant horizon and sent a great ragged ball of smoke into the sky.  Then there was another, and then another–three huge blasts that filled the sky.  From behind us, a voice I recognized as my grandfather’s said, “Queak.” All at once, we were blown backward by some unaccountable force, and my father and I landed inside the house in a cramped enclosure that resembled a cellar or an attic, its beams just above our heads.  The room began to rock back and forth violently, and my unseen grandfather spoke again.  I knew he was there, but I didn’t turn my head.  This time, I heard him pronounce the word “Quake,” followed by “Earthquake.” As I woke, the walls had begun to splinter and break apart.

Dream economies are frugal.  The smoking sky on September eleventh, the television images from Iraq, the bombs that burst on the beach where my father had dug himself a trench in February 1945 burned in unison on the familiar ground of rural Minnesota.  Three detonations. Three men of three generations together in a house that was going to pieces, a house I inherited, a house that shuddered and shook like my sobbing niece and my own besieged body, inner cataclysms I associated with two men who were no longer alive.  My grandfather shouts in his sleep.  My father shoves his fist through the ceiling.  I quake.”  (pages 231-232)

Rubric rating: 8     I can’t wait to finish Living, Thinking, Looking, and am absolutely going to pick up her essays on art.

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (2/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents (continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries (countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America)
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before 2/10)
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3 thoughts on “REVIEW | The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt

  1. Pingback: Review: Report From the Interior by Paul Auster | wine and a book

  2. Pingback: The Link List | wine and a book

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