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
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

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

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little