Siri Hustvedt: my life and other fiction
Siri Hustvedt's new novel, The Summer Without Men, deals with many women's worst fear: your husband leaving you in middle age. Just don't ask her if she and Paul Auster are having marital
Photo - Author Siri Hustvedt's novel The Summer Without Men deals with issues surrounding a husband leaving his wife. Photograph by Sipa Press/Rex Features
Author Siri Hustvedt's novel The Summer Without Men deals with issues surrounding a husband leaving his wife. Photograph by Sipa Press/Rex Features
Recently, the American author Siri Hustvedt received an annoying, if all too familiar, phone call. A friend – "A WRITER friend," she stresses, with should-have-known-better emphasis – had received a copy of Hustvedt's latest novel, The Summer Without Men, and immediately picked up the phone. "Siri? I just saw the title of your new book," he said. "Is anything wrong with you and Paul?"
The mere retelling of this story, weeks after the event, makes Hustvedt collapse back into her armchair with exasperation, and her normally easy laugh sounds suddenly forced.
Throughout Hustvedt's 20-year career as a novelist, and particularly since she hit the mainstream with the bestselling success of her 2003 novel What I Loved, she has struggled with two extremely trying public perceptions: that her novels should be seen through the prism of autobiography, and she herself should be seen through the prism of her husband, novelist Paul Auster.
In regards to the latter problem, things are no longer quite so bad as they once were, like when a German journalist told her that he "knew" her first novel, the distinctly un-Auster-esque The Blindfold, was written by Auster. Nonetheless, rare is the book review that does not mention whose wife she is and rarer still is the review of any of Auster's novels that mention whose husband he is.
More grating to her, though, is the accusation of autobiography, which she finds not only more trying, but also more sexist. "There is this assumption that much of what I write is about my life and that simply is not true," she says. "I've wondered if there's some sort of sexual stereotyping because some academics have claimed that all of Paul's truly autobiographical books – The Invention of Solitude, Hand to Mouth – are invented.
"The man is so clever everything is a kind of Derridean deconstruction and everything a woman writes is confessional? The only book I've written which could be construed as confessional (2009's The Shaking Woman, Hustvedt's scholarly investigation of what she, somewhat Victorian-ishly, calls "her nerves" and what others may call minor seizures) was 10% about me and 90% disciplinary approaches to a diagnostic problem."
Yet the longer Hustvedt talks in her Brooklyn townhouse – which is like a physical manifestation of Hustvedt herself, all long and lean with clean Nordic lines – the more frequently admissions of autobiography in her latest book slip out: the gregarious daughter Daisy who wants to be an actress is, Hustvedt proudly admits, based strongly on her and Auster's daughter, Sophie; the relationships between the protagonist and her sister and mother are inspired by the ones between Hustvedt and her family.
Elements of non-fiction in a writer's fiction are hardly unique to Hustvedt, nor, to be honest, of especial interest to anyone other than those personally involved. The one exception to this is the instance that has, almost certainly, made her more wary about this issue of autobiography. What I Loved told the story of a troubled, possibly sociopathic young man who causes his loving father and stepmother's much concern by falling in with a druggy character from the club world who may or may not have killed someone.
Beyond the novel, Auster's son, Daniel – from his first marriage to the poet Lydia Davis – was befriended by the decidedly unappealing Michael Alig, whose story was retold in the film, Club Monster. In 1998, Daniel pleaded guilty to stealing from a drug dealer, Angel Melendez, who was later killed by Alig. Daniel admitted to being in Melendez's apartment at the time of the murder but was cleared of any part in it.
Many pointed out the overlaps when Hustvedt's book was published and Hustvedt swiftly retreated behind a nervy wall of silence. She, unsurprisingly, bucks against discussing it today and instead just says, "I have a tendency to face my bad fantasies in my books".
The Summer Without Men, her latest novel, deals with a subject that is very much many women's worst fear: not only that one's husband leaves you in middle age for someone much younger, but that his manner of departure is so cruel that it makes you wonder if you ever knew him at all. Hustvedt, 56, heard "about five" instances of this happening to women she knew and promptly sat down and wrote her book in less than a year. The last two took, combined, a decade to write, and she puts the "pouring out" of this last novel down to growing confidence and "the book is dedicated to my psychoanalyst, so it may have something to do with that."
It tells the story of what happens to the wife, Mia, after her husband, Boris, leaves her, "menopausal, abandoned, bereft and forgotten". It presents a depressing depiction of what being a woman entails: you're bullied as a teenager, you overthrow your own ambitions for motherhood, you are left by your husband and, even if you aren't, you will almost certainly outlive him and die a widow. Would she call it a feminist novel?
"Yes I would," she says, with a crisp small smile of pride. But she then adds something of a nervous caveat: "But, um, you know, 'feminism' – people get very anxious about that word."
The only people who get anxious about it are those who complicate the term beyond "gender equality". In her 1997 essay, A Plea for Eros, Hustvedt claimed that "American feminism has always had a puritanical strain, an imposed blindness to erotic truth."
Now, she says: "Sexuality has become much more integrated into a feminist perspective." But, she also concedes: "I wrote [A Plea for Eros] a number of years ago."
It has only been in the past decade, since her daughter approached adulthood, that her career has taken off. Did she relate to Mia's frustration at having to put her ambitions in the shadows when she had a child? "This is not a simple question because the joy of maternity is a big deal," she smiles. "And since my daughter has grown up, I have not just had more hours in my day but more emotional room. But being a mother is complicated because it's not just a paternal culture making demands on you, it's those internal demands and expectations that women have and are self-generated."
Hustvedt was born and raised in Minnesota, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, and studied at St Olaf College, in the same state. She moved to New York in 1978 and met Auster three years later. As she likes to say, she fell in love with him at first sight, "but it took him a little longer – a few hours."
Whereas Auster's books are written with a cool precision that creates an oddly dreamy atmosphere, Hustvedt's work in the reverse manner, the seemingly airy writing building up characters that are as clear as light. I interviewed Auster almost a decade ago and it is easy to see the simpatico between the two: the cerebalism, the quiet confidence. They are also two of only a handful of people I have ever interviewed who suggested it be done in their home, as opposed to a distance-maintaining bar or restaurant. Yet both suggested we conduct the interview in exactly the same room of their house – the very front one: they will let journalists in only so far.
After having written in both men's and women's voices in her novels, her next book will feature a melange of narrators. What is it called?
"It's called Monsters at Home," she says excitedly.
Your friends will be worried about you, I say.
"Yes," she replies, and now there is no easy laugh.