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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat