Good Reading : March 2008
MARCH 2008 ı goodreading 15 fragility that have pervaded her life. Reviewers wondered how someone living the storybook conception of intellectual happiness – and who, by her own account, had enjoyed a charmed childhood with adoring parents – could be so emotionally unstable. But Hustvedt, who once considered becoming a psychoanalyst, knows that the psyche works in complex and unexpected ways. How else to explain why, during her honey- moon with Auster in Paris – after months of what she describes as unprecedented bliss – she had a seizure and fell ill with a migraine that lasted a year? ‘I’ve been conducting a self-analysis for many years, but there’s a great deal that I don’t understand,’ Hustvedt says, sipping water. ‘I’m a stranger to myself in many ways.’ As a child, Hustvedt suffered from hallucinations and heard inner voices that made her fear she was becoming mad. In her adult life, Hustvedt’s neurological sensitivity has meant being hospitalised with migraines. She knows when a migraine is imminent because she feels euphoric before the crash. ‘I have these almost manic arcs, but they’re not followed by depression, as in the classic bipolar thing, but by a migraine, usually after excitement.’ Sometimes she throws herself into research with such a fevered intensity that Auster warns her to stop. Does she listen to him? ‘No,’ says Hustvedt, hooting with laughter again. At the centre of Hustvedt’s engrossing and erudite new novel, The Sorrows of an American, is a six-foot blonde writer named Inga, also prone to migraine attacks. Inga and her brother Erik, a psychoanalyst, are spurred by an anguished letter they discover in their late father’s office to investigate his possible involvement in a suspicious death. As Erik remakes his life following a divorce, Inga has an affair with the biographer of her late husband – a dashing literary icon named Max Blaustein, now dead from stomach cancer. Inga met Max at a reading while a graduate student at Columbia University; Hustvedt met Auster at a poetry reading in 1981 when she was writing her dissertation on Charles Dickens. Hustvedt says she fell in love instantly – for Auster it took several hours. Books were a major part of their romance. ‘Once, very early in our love affair, he grabbed me – and just as he was about to kiss me, he looked at me and he said, “Who do you prefer, Beckett or Burroughs?” I said, “Beckett.” He said, “Good.”’ Temperamentally, Auster is the opposite of the brooding, hard-drinking Max. ‘Paul has almost no anger. I have more anger than he does.’ Hustvedt and Auster plant cutesy references to each other’s books in their work – Auster even borrowed her heroine Iris (‘Siri’ in reverse) from The Blindfold for his novel Leviathan. Hustvedt writes in an immaculately tidy, light-filled room on the top floor. Auster used to work in the basement, but now rents an office two blocks away.They write for six hours a day, and are each other’s first – and most brutal – readers. Auster reads aloud to Hustvedt after he completes a chapter, while Hustvedt usually waits until finishing a full draft before showing him her work. But she felt that The Sorrows of an American was polished enough in its early stages to show him in instalments. ‘The book was written in beats, almost like a fugue. I wouldn’t leave a beat until I felt it was in pretty good shape. It had its own music, its own feeling.’ After 26 years of marriage, her husband’s work still surprises her, arising from parts of him which remain mysterious. This enigmatic quality s attractive to Hustvedt. ‘Eroticism always nvolves some for m of istance and not knowing, therwise it becomes banal nd pedestrian.’ With The Sorrows f an American Hustvedt eated a distance from rself by making Erik the rrator rather than Inga. She und that writing about Inga in the third person made the self-portrait somewhat comic. ‘That’s probably what distance always does. I had this sense of writing a story as my imaginary brother.’ Hustvedt wrote in a man’s voice for What I Loved (that of Leo, a New York Jewish intellectual) and enjoyed it so much that she did it again. ‘You get to occupy this position of greater authority.’ Erik is her first protagonist from Brooklyn, even though Hustvedt and Auster have lived there since 1981. ‘After a while the intimacy just creeps up on you. I only set books in places that are very close to me. I always need to see the characters walking around in places even if they aren’t described.’ For The Enchantment of Lily Dahl – about a 19-year-old waitress in the fictional Midwestern town of Webster – Hustvedt drew on her familiarity with the American heart- land from growing up in Northfield, Minneapolis. ‘Everyone believed that every character represented a real person, which isn’t true,’ says Hustvedt, with her faint Midwestern twang. Her parents fawned over Hustvedt and her three sisters – now an architect, a businesswoman and a French literature academic – planting in Hustvedt a conviction that she had a great and unique destiny. ‘It’s absurd, but if you have parents who look at you like that, you feel that you can do anything.’ author profile PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY SIGRID ESTRADA She described the feelings of anxiety and mental fragility that have pervaded her life. Reviewers wondered how someone living the storybook conception of intellectual happiness could be so emotionally unstable.