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The Heartguard

September 25, 2011 15 comments

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt. 2008.  Translated into French as Eligie pour un Américain.

This is my first Siri Hustvedt and it deeply impressed me. Unlike my other readings, I felt the urge to take notes while I was reading, not to write down ideas but as a means to tame the strong reaction I had to her text.

Erik Davidsen is a divorced psychiatrist who lives in New York but grew up in Minnesota, in a family of Norwegian origins. His sister Inga also lives in New York with her teenage daughter Sonia. Inga is a philosopher and a writer and she’s the widow of the famous writer Max Blaustein. Max died five years ago from cancer but Inga still suffers a lot from his absence. When the story begins, Lars Davidsen, Erik and Inga’s father, just died and as Erik’s house is now too big for him after his divorce, he rents a level to Miranda and her five-years-old daughter Eglantine. Mother and daughter enter into his life.

Erik explores his father’s past through Lars’s memoirs and Inga is face to face with Max’s hidden past. She’s also the keeper of his literary work. It’s about mourning, memory and the question of identity. We define ourselves according to our environment and our relationships with other people. What does it do to our self when a beloved person dies? Who is Inga without Max? The part of Inga who was “Max’s wife” has to die too. Who is Erik without his father’s figure? The part of Erik named “Lars’s son” has to die too.

The absence of joy seeps from this book but it’s not weepy at all. Our narrator, Erik, is beige and whispering. All the characters have a secret crack in their soul, in their being. And Erik isn’t photosensitive but sorrow-sensitive. Other people’s pains go under his skin and meet his, not by osmosis but by capillarity. There’s a sort of permeability of pain from Erik’s patients to himself. From Inga to Erik. From Sonia to Erik. I felt him breathing in his environment and breathing out sorrow in thoughts and dreams, feelings and visions. He’s also a caretaker. Some people are bodyguards. He’s the heartguard of his family. In French, I would have said « Il est leur garde du cœur » Nonetheless, I was watching him but not living with him. He’s a distant person with a vast personal space. As a reader, I couldn’t enter his bubble. Dreams, ghosts and secrets have a great part in the characters’ lives.

This novel is entitled Sorrows of an American and I didn’t see Erik as an American. I felt him more Norwegian than American. After that thought had crossed my mind, I wondered “What does it mean?” And I have no clear answer to that. Perhaps it’s because it reminded me of Wassmö’s books or because it also sounds like Nancy Huston. Or maybe it is because I pictured him silently crying like the man on Munch’s painting, The Cry. Erik has a muffled voice to tell painful memories and events, to evoke people who grew up in a family where too much was left unsaid. Erik exudes sadness and smothered sorrows. So do Inga, Miranda, Sonia.

It is the story of America, in a way or probably more the story of the American psyche. Through Lars Davidsen’s memoirs, the story of immigrants and farmers in Minnesota resurfaces. The Great Depression. The hardworking men. The distance between the farms and the snow that cuts them from the rest of the world during winter time. The poverty. It’s far from the myth of the glorious emigrant who came to the country of milk and honey. Emigrants don’t get rich but spend a lot of sweat. However, social ascension is a reality: Erik’s father was a history teacher and Erik himself is a psychiatrist.

The central question of races is present as another part of the origins of the American psyche. I’m always puzzled when I read that characters define themselves according to the percentage of black or Cherokee blood they have in them. Or more precisely, they give the percentage of non-white blood they have. Miranda is black, from Jamaica. Eglantine’s father is from mixed origins.

And then the trauma of 9/11, as Sonia was in school in Manhattan when it happened. She suffers from nightmares.

Siri Hustvedt’s father died when she was writing this book and she had time to ask him his permission to use parts of his memoirs in her novel. So I was moved to discover that Lars Davidsen’s memoirs were real. I wondered if Siri Hustvedt, from Minnesota and of Norwegian origins had split herself into Erik and Inga. Erik is the one who reads his father’s memoirs, like she did. Inga is a woman. She’s a little unbalanced, I don’t know how to phrase is into English except under the general “it’s the nerves”. Which brings us back to Siri Hustvedt and her book The Shaking Woman: A History of my Nerves. (Read Caroline’s excellent review here) Inga’s husband is a much acclaimed writer, innovative, a literary genius who overshadows his wife’s talent as a writer. Like Paul Auster? All in all, I had the feeling that she had put a lot of herself in this book.

The only thing that bothered me in that novel is the name of Miranda’s daughter, Eglantine, a French word meaning Wild Rose. An improbable name to me, I even downloaded a sample of the book to see if the translator had translated another name into Eglantine for the French public. But no, her name is really Eglantine, a floral name. So when she’s called Eggy, I sort of superimposed an image of an egg head on a wild rose bush and it was really weird. But it is a minor flaw and a personal incident.

That said, I loved this book (and if you reader hasn’t understood that by now, I’m a poor reviewer) and I want to read another one from her. Any suggestion?

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