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
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam