Honor Clerk on Siri Hustvedt’s latest novel
Born into a second generation Norwegian immigrant family, Erik Davidsen is a divorced New York psychoanalyst with his fair share of sorrows and with a close circle of relations and acquaintances who in turn have their sorrows too. He is a compassionate and sensitive man and the troubles of his family and of his patients are central to his thoughts. He is also lonely, and finds himself involuntarily saying so, out loud. His father has just died, his sister is recently widowed and her famous husband’s life is the subject of intrusive press speculation. Her daughter’s double bereavement is compounded by having witnessed events at the Twin Towers. Shot through his narrative is the story of his father’s life — a harsh rural Minnesota upbringing, haunting war service in the Far East and eventually a college professorship — told partly through a memoir and partly through enquiries that Erik and his sister make following the discovery of a cryptic note in their father’s desk. A cheering counterpoint to this gloom comes in the form of Miranda, Erik’s Jamaican tenant, and her daughter Eglantine, a forcefield of childish exuberance. Father, mother, grandparents, sister, niece, neighbours, friends, patients — each of their histories and troubles form a strand of the story woven together and reaching resolution only in the resolution of Erik’s own internal story.
There is a solid physical immediacy about Siri Hustvedt’s novels, a quality that seems to lift her characters off the page, to make them live and breathe and move in a world that one can feel and touch, and she exploits this facility here to the full. She has also always been good at writing about works of art, and there are times in the novel when one might be wandering through a gallery of the author’s mind, decoding aspects of the characters’ stories through a series of vivid creations — Miranda’s dream drawings, her partner’s photographs, tiny, grim doll-sculptures associated with Erik’s father’s youth, frame-by-frame descriptions of films scripted by his brother-in-law.
If there is a nicely explored paradox here, between the solidity of the world her characters inhabit, and the tenor of a novel which dwells on inference, on secrets kept, emotions bottled up, on vacancy and absence, there remains something not completely satisfactory about it. At one point early in the book Erik claims that in his work he has come across many versions of the parent-child story, ‘people suffering,’ as he puts it, ‘from the intricacies of a narrative they are unable to recount.’ It is a perceptive observation but it is also a dangerous one because, ultimately, something of the same niggling frustration undermines the reader’s experience of this book. And that, perhaps, has as much to do with the genesis of the novel as anything else. In the acknowledgments Hustvedt gives two major inspirations for the novel — a memoir written by her recently deceased father and her immersion, through lectures, conversations and through teaching at a psychiatric clinic, in the world of psychiatry and of the mentally ill. But they feel, however, just that: separate inspirations. Nothing she writes could be anything but sensitive and intelligent, but in yoking these two sources into a coherent narrative, there remains, for all the wisdom, wit and humanity of the tale, a hint of difficulty in resolution — and a glimpse of the armature that should really be well buried in a fully realised fiction.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 31, 2008