Siri Hustvedt: ‘As a woman, you’re writing from the side, marginalised’

The Times

June 18, 2012


Monsters At Home is the title of Siri Hustvedt’s next book, featuring a female artist, “multiple narrators and pseudonymous existences”, though there are no ogres immediately visible in the author’s imposing brownstone home in Brooklyn.

Like her, the living room and kitchen are all elegant lines and cool Scandinavian simplicity: she was brought up in Minnesota, her 89-year-old mother Ester is Norwegian, her father Lloyd, who died in 2004, Norwegian-American. Hustvedt’s husband, the writer Paul Auster, dressed like his wife all in black, pops his head around the partition of the kitchen and living room to say an avuncular “hello”. They are one of New York’s premier literary couples, married for three decades, she eight years his junior and looking considerably younger than her 57 years.

Hustvedt’s merry laugh is a surprise: her intense novels feature characters who are pushed to the very edge, their states of distress intellectually analysed by Hustvedt — invoking Freud, theories around hysteria, psychoanalysis and the imagination. What I Loved (2003) was a bestseller, a highbrow page-turner about an art historian who suffers the loss of a child, the breakdown of a marriage and mysterious abuses of trust by his best friend’s wayward son — a story given piquancy because the wayward boy resembled Daniel Auster, Auster’s son by his first marriage who, like the character in the novel, fell in with a notorious New York club-scene figure.

Her nonfiction, principally The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves, has related Hustvedt’s battles with debilitating migraines and a mysterious neurological condition that caused her to have spasms, the first on her honeymoon in Paris with Auster. Her latest book of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking features a piece, “My Strange Head: Notes on Migraine”, in which she tries to ascertain the truth about her ailments.

Other essays in the collection include art criticism, a meditation on her father and the science of reading. Hustvedt is fiercely analytical and high minded: the act of pretending, she writes, “occurs in an imaginary space that exists side by side with actual or real space. This human flexibility to be in two places at once is a function of understanding time and symbolic representation.”

Although her previous novel, The Summer Without Men, was solely occupied by women, she writes as a man a fair bit. “I like writing as both. You have a position of greater authority as a male voice. As a woman you’re writing from the side, marginalised. Some of us have Utopian fantasies that won’t always be the case.”

As a Freudian, she believes “sexuality is far more slippery than people think. I understand that for oppressed groups sexual identity is hugely important, and of course some people just want to sleep with men or women, but my feeling is that it’s pretty squishy. I have never had sexual relationships with women, but I have never liked theoretically boxing people into categories. As an artist my impulse is to kick against received knowledge.”

In the past 12 years Hustvedt has immersed herself in neuroscience: “I’m not a neuroscientist but I can read and understand the papers.” Does her interest stem from her own problems? “It’s fair to say, had I not had my migraines since childhood and various neurological issues I would probably not have become so interested.”

She has noted a personal root to many professionals’ interest: “The psychiatrist with the schizophrenic sibling or parent, for example. I was told the proportion of neurologists suffering from migraines is higher than in the general population.”

An “extremely sensitive” child, Hustvedt, the eldest of four daughters, “like so many migraine children” couldn’t go on carnival rides. “I would think, ‘How can these children be having fun when you could throw up at any moment?’ I always had a feeling of difference.”

She drew, and later feasted on books: David Copperfield was an early touchstone. She first read Freud, “though who knows how much I understood?”, at 16: “What fascinated me was his survey of the archaeology of the mind.”

Hustvedt’s fourth novel, The Sorrows of An American, featured sections of her father’s journal. They were close, she says, though “I was attached to my father, if not distantly, then in not quite as involved a way as my mother. It was a classic, older-style family. He read What I Loved later in life, loved it and I cried. I think I always wanted that closeness with my father: an intimacy, mutuality, not father-daughter but almost like a camaraderie — though he was always proud of me and kept all my good reviews.”

For the past four years Hustvedt has  been in psychoanalysis, which she values “because you’re not just alone spinning through thoughts with your internal narrator. It’s been great. I have discovered something liberating about it. Neuroses — and Freud is right about this — are repetitions, patterns of acting out you’re not aware of.”

She first sought it because of her shaking, but that turned out to be a neurological, rather than psychiatric, symptom. After the first seizure in 1981, “I just thought, ‘What on Earth happened?’ You’re hurled against the wall, shaken up, dizzy, but compos mentis.” In 1975 she had suffered a period of debilitating ill health after a migraine. “What happens is you become afraid that you will never not have a headache. The anxiety and fear connected to pain exacerbates your pain.”

Did she become depressed? “I’m a remarkably non-melancholic person, so even at very low moments I didn’t ever feel hopeless.” Today, talking about “emotional” things can induce a seizure, though if Hustvedt feels “at risk” she takes the beta-blocker Propranolol. Her migraines have become “fewer and fewer” with age. She practises the relaxation technique of biofeedback to ward them off.

She jokes that Auster must have “wondered who on Earth he had married”, but “he has always been supportive”. They met at a poetry reading: “The joke in the family is that it took me 60 seconds to fall in love and him a few hours. I thought he was beautiful: that was really my first impression.”

Hustvedt had published a poem in the Paris Review, “a big coup”; he was “a poet working on his first book. I didn’t fall in love with a famous person, but an obscure person whose work I greatly admired.” She, “a little more extrovert” than he, doesn’t resent his greater fame; both are each other’s first reader and advise on changes to each other’s work. Both appear as characters in each other’s books. Are they happy? “We’ve been together for 31 years, so if either of us was deeply unhappy we wouldn’t be here, unless we were masochists.”

They have a glamorous public image. “I think there’s something nice about ageing and becoming old and funny,” Hustvedt demurs. “The outside is not the inside.” There are two models of romantic relationship, she says: “One whole point of the story is that long relationships must change or they will not survive. If you’re not willing to evolve, it probably won’t work.”

Hustvedt resents that fiction by women is “assumed to have come from personal experience”. It’s a “sexist” way to read, she claims, informed by the notion “that women only write about their own feelings and experiences”.

OK, that may be true, I say, but What I Loved features a plot that mirrors her family life fairly plainly. In 1998 Auster’s son Daniel (from his first marriage), then aged 20, was sentenced to five years’ probation for stealing $3,000 from the body of a murdered drug dealer, Angel Melendez. In What I Loved a teenage boy falls in with a figure who bears more than a passing resemblance to Michael Alig, who was convicted of Melendez’s murder.

“He is doing OK,” Hustvedt says of Daniel, declining to add anything else: “So much is in the public domain.”

Sophie, the couple’s 24-year-old daughter, is a singer. “I think it was not compelling enough to want another child,” Hustvedt says. “The more children you have, the harder it is to write.” As she gets older, “there is a greater sense of urgency about work. I am a maniacal writer and reader.”

This urgency, Hustvedt laughs, is down to the spectre of death: “I’d like to write till I croak.” She relishes the neuroscience conferences she attends, the “battle” of debate and derides the misery memoir (her own memoir-infused books such as The Shaking Woman remain “true to the nature of memory”, she insists). She relaxes by gardening and watching old movies (her favourite is Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown).

The question that “totally obsesses” her is, “How do we become who we are?”; alongside her novel Hustvedt is planning a philosophical book called What Are We Anyway? She takes me outside to her lush garden to show off her roses in premature full bloom. Her beaming smile suggests that she is as proud of this floral feat as of the success of her incisive, haunting books.