Memories of the Future review: a playful memoir of an imagination
Siri Hustvedt uses her warm intellect and passion to play a game with the idea of fiction
Siri Hustvedt: her novel may be baggy and rambling but it’s under the control of a consummate intelligence. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images
Memories of the Future
Is Memories of the Future a novel or a memoir? It comes billed as a novel but is convincingly presented as a memoir, and indeed the situation and many events mirror the author’s own experience. Part of Siri Hustvedt’s achievement is to persuade us that whether or which doesn’t matter. The past after all is a reimagined land and the truth of whether something actually happened or it didn’t and the way we perceive it is subject to the wavering unreliable faculty we call memory. Just as memory plays games with us, Hustvedt plays an exuberant game between it and fiction, while telling us it’s what she’s doing. Her book might best be described as a memoir of an imagination.
The possessor of the imagination in question is SH – Siri Hustvedt as memoirist therefore? – who also tells us this is “a portrait of the artist as a young woman”. And young artist women, like all artists, imagine. In her early 20s SH arrives, as the author did, in late 1970s New York from the mid-west with the intention of taking a year out – or perhaps in this case a year “in” – to write a novel before embarking on graduate studies at Columbia. Intensely ambitious, eagerly studious, she spends her days in the New York Public Library nourishing her mind on a diet of great if arcane writers and speaking to nobody for three weeks. By night she listens through her apartment wall in fascinated apprehension to the voice of her neighbour, Lucy Brite, revealing lurid and alarming obsessions to invisible listeners. SH transcribes these monologues and analyses them in her diary. She also starts to write her novel, a lame and, it has to be said, unreadable tale about two detectives.
New York art scene
Writing her account of this time decades later, SH is able to nudge her memory and what now seems to her its holes and haziness with extracts from the Lucy Brite notebook and the diary and the starter novel. This is a device – the novel as artefact – Hustvedt also used to great effect in a previous novel, The Blazing World, about a woman artist who tries to challenge the obdurate misogyny of the New York art scene and spectacularly fails.
At a reading by poet John Ashberry – he doesn’t impress her – SH meets a soulmate, Whitney, who names her Minnesota after her Mid West origins. Minnesota soon meets more friends and has a succession of lovers and a gang to hang out with. This Gang of Five will be artists, writers, academics. They have, as SH sees later, a “sense of self-satisfaction” that comes from “what we had not yet done but surely would do”. She also sees that she and Whitney and Fanny were “decorous young women who mostly stuck to the rules”. Minnesota’s New York is not the easy/sleazy downtown of the late 1970s but the kind of New York where the men the gang know and sleep with are Ivy League.
Blitheness and confidence
It’s equally a story of a young woman becoming a feminist. Minnesota’s sense of blitheness and confidence is badly damaged when she is almost raped (one of those Ivy League men). Saved by Lucy Brite and her witchy friends – the Ladies of the Broom – she is plunged into rage at the misogyny of men and into blaming herself for her compliance. As in The Blazing World, the heroine finds herself giving a self-assertive intimidatingly erudite speech at a dinner table, to the distress of the man who addresses her as “my dear” and whose role that is. She starts to identify with the Dada artist, the “Baroness”, Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, who very probably was the real creator of Duchamp’s famous urinal, The Fountain. Taking to carrying a knife on her person, she nearly becomes a semi-crazy of the streets. Minnesota is told she “is not herself”. But she realises she wants to “break the rules” from now on and in fact she doesn’t want “her old self back”.
There are lovely ironies and twists in this big baggy meditative novel. When Minnesota’s money runs out for instance, she lands a job as ghost-writer for a wealthy woman’s autobiography that will be titled The Rebellious Debutante. Abandoning her own novel she writes the ghost-book easily “via literary conventions that had long been established”, and discovers the difference between art and writing.
Memories of the Future may be baggy and rambling but it’s under the control of a consummate intelligence. Hustvedt wears her erudition lightly and her cool intellect has a playful and warming passion. To experience her witty, speculative and incisive mind makes her book an unusual and great pleasure to read.