Published in the i March 22, 2019
Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, has a narrator named SH. At the age of 61, she rediscovers a diary she wrote when she was 23, as well as her first attempt at a novel. The older narrator looks back on her first year living in New York with an eye that is both wry and beady, peering into the gaps between her records and her memories.
SH shares her initials with her creator, as well as many other biographical details: Hustvedt also moved from Minnesota to New York to live in a “grim” apartment on West 109th Street, ahead of studying at Columbia University. She wrote about Dickens; she was terribly poor.
But it would be a mistake to presume Hustvedt, 64, would write anything so straightforward as memoir. Her output is extensive, from acclaimed, intricate novels What I Loved and The Blazing World to academic essays on philosophy, visuals arts and neuroscience.
“This is clearly not a misery memoir. I wanted to play with SH as a version of the self, but – this is very important – the whole book is playing with the overlapping realities of the imagination and memory,” she says, sternly.
The fallibility of memory – and how it might allow us to construct a fiction about our lives – is a fertile subject for art. But it is also responsible for a publishing trend Hustvedt is suspicious of: namely, memoirs featuring pages of “remembered” dialogue, or descriptions of how breakfast tasted 30 years ago.
“The genre of memoir has essentially stolen all the conventions of the novel.” The use of biographical details within her own lightly comic novel is tantalising, then, but also pointed. Female writers, after all, still face assumptions that their work is inherently more confessional. “I actively hope to undermine that,” says Hustvedt.
“There is an almost morbid belief that women somehow lack imagination, and that everything you’re writing has to have the ‘I’ character in it.”
There is a double standard at play, too: women are diminished for writing confessional works, whereas men face no opprobrium.
Memories of the Future explicitly tackles the condescension of men towards women. SH meets men who don’t ask questions on dates, or insist she read their favourite books but don’t bother with hers.
SH is sexually assaulted – a serious trauma – but Hustvedt is brilliant at capturing the smaller slights women face, too. “It all goes together,” she suggests.
Such condescension is something she has experienced throughout her life – not least being married to novelist Paul Auster, and often positioned in his shadow. She has blood-raising tales of men standing up in the Q&As after her lectures, and patronising her outrageously. Unlike her narrator, Hustvedt has strategies for keeping her cool.
“You have to fight back; never cry or fall into female stereotypes.”
The novel also features Hustvedt’s humorous line drawings of powerful men from Marcel Duchamp to Donald Trump, another way to “cut great men down to size”.
The author wrote the bulk of the novel before #MeToo broke, but it certainly chimes. “I have come to think that speaking out is really important. It makes change possible.”
Memories of the Future is published by Sceptre, £18.99