Book extract: The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt

A Brooklyn psychiatrist uncovers a web of family secrets

A woman I didn't know was shutting the door to Inga's apartment just as I arrived. I saw her hunched body and rust-coloured hair on the landing as she turned and, with her head lowered, proceeded slowly down the stairs. When we neared each other, she abruptly looked up into my face for a fraction of a second. I backed off to allow her to pass, but she didn't move out of the way, and we brushed arms for an instant. "Excuse me," I said, although I felt I had done nothing that called for an apology. She jerked her head towards me, looked me in the eyes for an instant, and then, before she moved away, she smiled. It was a grim smile, an uncomfortable mixture of self-satisfaction and shame. It reminded me of a child who has just kicked a dog and enjoyed it, but who, when discovered, is also keenly aware of adult disapproval. She said nothing. She turned away immediately and continued down the steps, but the expression I had seen lingered in my mind like the aftermath of a pinch.

I greeted Inga with the words "Who was that?"

Inga looked shaken. Her face was drained of colour, and I could see that she was making an effort to control her voice when she spoke, "It was a journalist from Inside Gotham."

"You did an interview about your book?"

Inga nodded. "That's what I thought, anyway. It was supposed to be about all my books. I even went back to Essays on the Image and Culture Nausea to make sure I was fresh. The magazine editor must have lied to Dorothy. I thought publishers were supposed to protect you from sleaze. For the first half-hour I was confused about what she wanted, but she kept asking me about Max, insinuating all kinds of things..."

"What kinds of things?"

Inga made a face. "Let's sit down. I feel sick, Erik."

"Your hands are shaking."

Inga clasped them in front of her.

Once we were seated, I asked what on earth the woman had said to her.

"It wasn't anything she said directly, it was what I smelled coming from her, something rancid..."

I stared at her. "Smelled?"

Inga straightened up in the sofa and took a breath, "You know what I mean. She wasn't interested in my writing or my ideas. She wanted gossip about my marriage, and I refused to say anything. She said, "It's only fair to warn you that lots of people are talking, and it might be better for you to go on the record with your story than keep quiet." She's writing a piece for the magazine. I'm sure it will be one of those gossipy articles that make you want to climb in the shower after you've read it." Inga put a trembling hand on her forehead.

"Is there something you're afraid of, Inga?"

"I loved Max with all my heart. He never left me." I could see that Inga was thinking about how to phrase what came next. She looked at me with open, earnest eyes. "The truth is he was fragile, sensitive, and a little volatile. He threw things across the room a few times. He roared like a lion when he was angry. He could be cut off, too, hard to talk to sometimes, but she used the words 'physically aggressive,' a euphemism, I presume, for wife beating or something. You can't respond to that; it sounds like denial. You can't say anything. There's no recourse at all. She also mentioned Scotch with a little sneer, asking me which label he preferred, and then she brought up the time he punched that stupid reviewer at a PEN dinner. Max drank, but he worked hard every day of his life until he was too sick and that was only near the very end. Even in the hospital he kept notes. All the time I knew him, he got up in the morning and wrote. The difference was that when I met him, he wasn't sad. He was so hungry for everything, but as he got older, he got sadder. After his mother died, he suffered, and I suffered with him. He was my best friend, but did I know everything about him? No, I didn't, and I didn't want to either. This awful woman will round up Adrian and Roberta. They were both married to him for exactly three years. Adrian won't say much, but Roberta will be delighted to crap all over him. God only knows how many of his ex-lovers and one-night stands are out there. She'll talk to the ones who continued to like him and the ones who hated his guts. She'll listen to the envious yakking of this third-rate novelist and the next one, and she'll write some garbage that will all be accurate, not a word misquoted, and then she'll parade it out there as the real story. That's how it goes, Erik. I know that. What sickened me was what I felt in her – something intrusive and ugly that made me feel polluted, no, not just polluted, frightened. I was scared."

"Of what?"

"I had the feeling that she knows something..." She paused. "She mentioned Sonia too, in an unpleasant way. She said something about all those women and just one child – it was so..."

"Mom." We both turned to see the girl herself standing in the hallway. "Who was talking about me?"

"A creepy journalist."

"Did she have red hair?"

"Yes," Inga and I said in unison.

Sonia took a few steps forward. "I was at the Bowery Poetry Club with some friends, and she came up to me, 'You're Max Blaustein's daughter,' blah, blah, blah. I tried to be polite and blow her off, but she kept pushing. I'm afraid I got kind of angry. I told her to piss off."

I laughed. Sonia smiled at me, but Inga shook her head. "Next time, just say you have nothing to say."

I don't know why the picture of Sonia at that moment has fastened itself in my memory. She was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a ragged t-shirt with words on it. I've forgotten the words, but I remember her face very well. She was so lovely, my niece, just 18, standing in the hallway with her fine face, her large dark eyes, and that long lithe body. She looked like both her mother and her father, but that evening I saw only Max in her. God, I missed him. God, he could write. He tapped the underground in his stories – the harrowing nether regions of human life, articulated in a language we all understand. But Inga was right. He did get sadder, and he had a rough time sleeping. I remembered making a delicate suggestion to him once that psychotherapy or an analysis might be an adventure for him, and if that seemed impossible, an antidepressant might lift his low spirits, but he'd have to lay off the booze. Max had leaned close to me and clapped me on the arm. "Erik," he said, "you mean well, but I've got a self-destructive bent, in case you hadn't noticed, which I very much doubt, since you do this for a living, but people like me don't go in for salvation. Crippled and crazy, we hobble toward the finish line, pen in hand."

© Siri Hustvedt 2008

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt is published by Sceptre, £16.99

About the author

Siri Hustvedt is the author of three previous novels, including 'What I Loved'. She was born and raised in Minnesota and now lives with her husband, Paul Auster, in Brooklyn.

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