Grace Linden | Longreads | July 2019 | 8 minutes (2,211 words)
The year is 2017 in Siri Hustvedt’s seventh and most recent novel Memories of the Future, and the premise is seemingly straightforward. The novel opens with its protagonist, S.H., a 61-year-old successful author, thinking back on the year when she moved to New York City over three decades earlier. It begins, like so many other stories and dreams, with the memory of a young woman moving to New York holding fast to the hope that this was the start of her life:
Years ago I left the wide, flat fields of rural Minnesota for the island of Manhattan to find the hero of my first novel. When I arrived in August of 1978, he was not a character so much as a rhythmic possibility, an embryonic creature of my imagination, which I felt as a series of metrical beats that quickened and slowed with my steps as I navigated the streets of the city. I think I was hoping to discover myself in him, to prove that he and I were worthy of whatever story came our way.
The beginning, like many beginnings and like life itself, is extraordinarily ordinary. S.H. recounts how, that summer of 1978, she found a small apartment on 109th Street in the Upper West Side. She remembers outfitting her new home with two place settings in the hopes of conjuring a lover. She smoked and drank a lot of coffee at the Hungarian Bakery and tried to be the type of person who interesting things happened to or, at the very least, who got to witness interesting things happening first-hand. She was lonely but didn’t want to leave, and instead was determined to lose herself in the rhythms of the city she had long loved even before ever really knowing it.
In the present, in 2017, S.H. has just traveled back to Minnesota to move her 92-year-old mother into a single room at the assisted-living wing of the nursing home where she has resided for almost a decade. The relocation requires a paring down and a purge, and while cleaning out old boxes, S.H. finds the journal she kept that first year in New York, now almost forty years gone. Upon the swirling cover of the Mead notebook, her younger self had scrawled ‘My New Life’ in case her intentions, and those of the novel, were not yet clear. Despite her active search for the hero of her first literary venture, these earliest entries are banal notations: “Read for two hours over one coffee with refills. Smoked too much. Book: Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Took notes, and then started conversation with girl named Wanda — large eyes, small mouth, dark blond hair, studying Russian history at Columbia.” Much of time is spent buying groceries and doing laundry, and the things that seem seismic are often only personally significant. Certainly, her words aren’t so different from what I write in my own journal, as seen, for example, on August 12, 2018: “Today at the ICA film. D and I saw a documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto, a Japanese composer in the tiny theater, and someone walked in 20 minutes late with a whole ice cream cone.”
In scanning this journal, S.H. remains remarkably patient with her past self, rarely cringing at the things she once thought and then committed to paper. She even accepts the first drafts of her novel, which is surprising given how painful it is to return to anything, and given how terribly overcooked and baggy this attempt was. The mise en abyme is easily the worst part of Memories of the Future; fortunately, it is side-lined quickly, though not fast enough. (Writing poorly but with purpose, however, isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to plot a bad novel, and in S.H.’s sentences, we see Hustvedt’s own, at times, deft work.) In the journal, S.H. can be mawkish and overripe, like when she refers to her friends as the ‘Dear Ones.’ And while older S.H. knows how pretentious this reads, she herself hasn’t abandoned such bombast, reflecting that “hindsight gives a shape to what is shapeless as you live it”; and that “sometimes in desperation we tie one tale up with another because it satisfies our lust for meaning.” These things are true, but not particularly revelatory or even interesting and part of what keeps Memories of the Future from being entirely successful is the frequency of such statements. But Hustvedt also knows that such thinking is truthful to the myopia of existence, and not necessarily just a symptom of being young.
While one such man may be unmemorable, an endless wave of entitled men is corrosive and eats away at one’s sense of self.
Soon these journal entries are as prevalent as S.H.’s present day reminisces; soon it is 1978 again. We witness our protagonist in both her past and current bodies. “I am free,” she realizes, “to follow the earlier self with interruptions from the later self because the old lady has perspective the young person cannot have. I meet myself on the page, then, on the pages she wrote years ago and the ones I am writing now.”
It is by now a familiar postmodern gesture to make a novel that mirror’s an author’s own life. Like her protagonist, Hustvedt also did her graduate work at Columbia University, and both, of course, share the same initials. But as much as there are parallels, there are notable differences which separate the fiction from the flesh; Memories of the Future is not an autobiography, and the truth it offers is specific to S.H. A character is not a stand-in for an author, no matter how many similarities there might be. Selfhood in any form is never fixed. In life so as in fiction, language is essential to self-invention. Language allows for the ‘I’ to be mutable and constantly re-invented.
After pages describing the Dear Ones, the city’s allure and beauty, and her efforts to write, always, the narrative shifts. S.H. is assaulted. Bad men populate Memories of the Future, but up until then, mostly their badness was harmless. Or rather, it seems harmless because, when isolated, these offenses were so easily brushed off. S.H. was attracted to the type of guy who thinks he discovered George Bataille and who, if he were born twenty years later, would flap around a copy of Infinite Jest while expounding Žižek’s philosophies; they are unfortunately common. She often quiets her opinions to bolster their self-image, in an unknown deference to someone else’s ego, and Hustvedt shrewdly reveals the damage this can inflict: while one such man may be unmemorable, an endless wave of entitled men is corrosive and eats away at one’s sense of self.
In the various accounts of bad men are echoes of Kate Zambreno’s Heroines which, as part memoir and part cultural criticism, endeavors to reclaim the gagged wives of Modernist Greats, chiefly Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, Vivienne Eliot and Jean Rhys. “Perhaps that’s why I find the narratives of Vivien(ne) and Zelda so haunting,” Zambreno writes.
Their erasure as subjects and subsequent demonizing is compelling in the context of the myths of modernism, but also they stand in for so many other anonymous bright girls, who never were able to become writers, who we’ll never know about. Who were stopped somehow.
Fitzgerald stole material from Zelda and then forbade her from writing about her life. In this fight to save these women from their permanent relegation to minor figures, Zambreno sees a mirror to her own life as she negotiates her simultaneous occupations of wife and writer. In some ways, Hustvedt too tries to weave in these past women, especially the poet Elsa Hildegard von Freytag-Loringhoven, known as the Baroness, and they serve as figures against whom the bad men are positioned. S.H. tells of how a boyfriend, Malcolm Silver, refused to take the Baroness seriously and refused to read George Eliot or Djuna Barnes, or any of the female writers she recommends to him. While Silver is entitled to his personal pantheon, and expects that it be taken seriously, he laughs at S.H.’s heroines and discards them immediately.
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Part of what makes these encounters so visceral are their ordinariness, which is also true of S.H.’s assault. Hers is a familiar story of girl meets boy. Jeffrey (we never learn his last name) is tall, handsome and superficially charming, and together they leave one party and go to another. Once there, S.H.’s anxiety spikes quickly, and she tells Jeffrey she is going to head home. But instead of leaving immediately, she waits for him at the elevator, thinking that it might be “awkward” if she did not. He insists on walking her up to her apartment and then, at the door, pushes into her back, and pushes his way inside. She asks him to leave, asks him again, and then Jeffrey proceeds to throw S.H. against a bookshelf which ultimately awakes the neighbors who intervene. The assault is narrated in retrospect, recorded on the pages of the Mead in terse, pressing sentences. S.H. doesn’t have time to wax elegant; she has to get everything down on paper and commit it to memory: “I want to tell it exactly as I remember it. I want to make last night intelligible, if that’s possible,” to show how the small, seemingly innocuous details — his child-sized teeth, the gold gleam of a watch — add up to form an indelible memory. In this passage, Hustvedt jettisons the frothy romance of her earlier descriptions and these spare, staccato sentences are some of the novel’s best.
She wonders why she waited for him at the elevator at all … there is shame in the waiting, which continues to hurt even more than the attack itself.
The ruthless and unembellished writing mirrors the detachment in which S.H. cloaks herself after the assault, and in the pages that follow, she wonders about her Almost Rapist (her name, not mine). She speculates about his thoughts and motivations, but mostly she wonders why she waited for him at the elevator at all. Whether it was out of politeness and obligation, or because he was so insistent that she couldn’t extricate herself, no matter, there is shame in the waiting, which continues to hurt even more than the attack itself. “I am so ashamed of waiting. I have been ashamed of waiting for almost four decades now and my humiliation does not end. No, it burns brightly.” S.H. asks herself repeatedly if she could have done something, anything, differently. While the novel’s looping timelines makes identity into a process that can be undone and reworked at whim, within its pages, “the story of the argument is fixed, determined from first word to last,” no matter how open-ended the unfolding might seem. S.H.’s past self can’t be redirected anymore than she might know what her future self will look like. It is not so easy to chart the gossamer nuances connecting yesterday to today, let alone ten years ago to now, as much as we may all try.
Older and more knowing S.H. understands that these humiliations and attacks were not her fault, but she also wishes she had acted differently. Recalling an earlier confrontation in the Hungarian Pastry shop that was successfully fended off, sixty-one-year-old S.H. says, “I also know I never backed young Blinderman against the wall, but I also know I have countless memories that must be wrong, memories I have dressed up with wishes.” S.H. is aware that her life is so far removed from that moment, and yet, and yet. Hustvedt, too, hopes for counterfactual endings; when asked in an interview what she would do differently, given the chance, she responded, “I would have articulated aloud the comments I too often suppressed out of deference to arrogant, condescending, sexist bores.”
So much of memory is pitching backwards, using what we know now to try to explain what has already happened. In its quest to rebalance and rewrite, Memories of the Future is a fitting a book for the current #MeToo moment, which is as much a movement about justice and reparations as it is about understanding the logic of memory, and how the present can be used to interrogate what happened before. In part, revisiting a past trauma can be cathartic, but transforming how assault is discussed, both in the present and retrospectively, has the potential to galvanize actual change. In her retrospective re-authoring, S.H. gives herself the opportunity to intercede and speak out against what happened; while she may not actually modify the past, her memories change the future.
Very little in storytelling happens in the crisp present simple, but neither, in a way, does much of life. A friend asked me recently if our relationship to these younger selves is one of pity, but in Memories of the Future, it hinges on forgiveness: forgive me for not knowing how to be, forgive me for still not knowing. The last page of Hustvedt’s novel is given over to a single illustration, a scant sketch of a naked woman, arms outstretched, soaring above the Empire State Building, and in her hand, she clasps a dagger pointing upwards, triumphant and defiant.
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Grace Linden is completing her PhD in History of Art. She is based in London.
Editor: Dana Snitzky