Pen por­traits of dark dreams

Nov­el­ists Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster cap­ture the psy­che and soul of Amer­i­can life. They spoke to John Free­man on the eve of their first Aus­tralian visit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

HE voice com­ing out of the speak­ers starts in a low whis­per, like the first sound one hears on wak­ing. Then it climbs higher and starts to sing of heart­break, of lone­li­ness. In a few min­utes it has changed again, this time to a bel­low- throated, bluesy rasp, full of wom­anly wis­dom and sass. Lis­ten­ing in on a re­cent Brook­lyn af­ter­noon, nov­el­ists Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt shake their heads and tap their feet. Auster wears a smile so big it nearly wraps around the back of his head, while his eyes squeeze shut with pride. And he should be pleased: it’s their daugh­ter singing.

‘‘ Doesn’t she have a great voice?’’ Auster asks. While com­plet­ing a de­gree at Bard Col­lege in New York state, So­phie Auster, 20, has been putting to­gether a new album and oc­ca­sion­ally ap­pear­ing with her fa­ther, a nov­el­ist best known for his New York tril­ogy, on stage at events. As soon as the mu­sic stops Auster is ri­fling through other demo CDs. ‘‘ Oh don’t play the whole album,’’ Hustvedt says, her 183cm frame folded into an arm­chair. I ask why a girl with a voice like that is both­er­ing with univer­sity at all and Hustvedt gives me a stern look. ‘‘ Let a mother have her dreams,’’ she laughs.

We’ve been at their Brook­lyn brown­stone for an hour, talk­ing about Auster and Hustvedt’s two up­com­ing books, and one gets the sense that this is the first time Amer­ica’s high­est profile lit­er­ary cou­ple has been com­pletely happy. It’s all part of the fam­ily busi­ness — in cre­ation — but they seem more com­fort­able when the light is turned off them. Daniel, Auster’s son from his first mar­riage, to short- story writer Ly­dia Davis, is a pho­tog­ra­pher and DJ. He made a cameo ap­pear­ance in Smoke, the 1995 film Auster wrote, and co- di­rected with Wayne Wang. So­phie is well on her way to a singing ca­reer. Yet Auster and Hustvedt have not slowed down; if any­thing, they have speeded up.

In the past decade,

Tthe two of them have pub­lished or edited more than 17 vol­umes of po­etry, es­says, fiction, graphic nov­els and screen­plays. Last year Auster, 61, re­leased a film he wrote and di­rected, The In­ner Life of Martin Frost, star­ring Michael Im­pe­ri­oli from The So­pra­nos, with So­phie in a bit part. And he has a new novel on the way. Hustvedt, 53, fresh from pub­lish­ing a se­ries of books heav­ily in­debted to, or about, the art world, also has a novel on the way: The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can.

‘‘ We re­ally live a quiet life,’’ Hustvedt says, as if apol­o­gis­ing for all this cul­ture, sit­ting now at their red lac­quered din­ing room ta­ble, within sight of an Alexan­der Calder print that was used as the fron­tispiece for Auster’s first col­lec­tion of po­ems. Auster is dressed in jeans and has pulled out a cigar­illo, which he smokes with great rel­ish. The si­lence of the block — which hap­pens to be home as well to Booker win­ner Ki­ran De­sai and nov­el­ist Jonathan Safran Foer — is thick and lush at 5pm. Hustvedt and Auster have lived here for more than 25 years, af­ter mar­ry­ing in 1981, long enough to watch the neigh­bour­hood clean up and gen­trify, then price out the writ­ers who once flocked here.

Like so many peo­ple in New York, both of them are spir­i­tual refugees of a sort. Auster hails from Ne­wark, New Jer­sey, and Hustvedt from Min­nesota. Auster said good­bye to his own child­hood world in his mag­nif­i­cent, won­der­fully dense and po­etic 1982 mem­oir, The In­ven­tion of Soli­tude. And now it is Hustvedt’s turn to do the same in The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can, which takes pieces of a mem­oir her fa­ther, who was a pro­fes­sor, wrote for his friends and in­cor­po­rates them ver­ba­tim into the story.

‘‘ I thought a lot about The In­ven­tion of Soli­tude when I was writ­ing this book,’’ Hustvedt says, her pos­ture turned to­ward Auster. ‘‘ It was like you were sort of or­der­ing your past in your mind, al­most fil­ing it, like it was the mind think­ing of it­self.’’ In The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can, Hustvedt’s char­ac­ters — a brother ( Erik) and sis­ter ( Inga) of Scan­di­na­vian de­scent liv­ing in New York — strug­gle sim­i­larly af­ter their fa­ther dies and leaves be­hind a mys­te­ri­ous se­ries of let­ters that sug­gest he may have had some­thing to do with a mur­der. ‘‘ I asked my fa­ther be­fore he died and he gave his per­mis­sion,’’ Hustvedt says, ‘‘ and it meant a lot to me to put it in here.’’ ‘‘ They are in­cred­i­ble let­ters,’’ Auster adds, ‘‘ and when you put them in there, they be­come some­thing en­tirely new.’’

This is not the first time Hustvedt has in­cor­po­rated the con­tours of real life into her fiction. Her pre­vi­ous novel, What I Loved, in­volved an icy poet, a fa­mous artist, his ex- wife and a trou­bled son. In The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can , while Erik tries to sort out his deep de­pen­dence on his psy­chi­a­try pa­tients, Inga be­gins to re­ceive in­sin­u­at­ing let­ters and vis­its from a jour­nal­ist about her re­cently de­ceased hus­band, a fa­mous writer, about whom the jour­nal­ist claims to know an em­bar­rass­ing se­cret.

One doesn’t have to look too hard to per­ceive a veiled jab at pry­ing jour­nal­ists who have, in the past, put Auster and Hustvedt’s per­sonal life into the tabloid press. Jok­ingly, Hustvedt plays along. ‘‘ See, I killed Paul,’’ she laughs, re­fer­ring to Inga’s hus­band. ‘‘ Se­ri­ously, though, he’s noth­ing like Paul: he’s older, he lives a to­tally dif­fer­ent life.’’ As much as she laughs at their celebrity, Hustvedt ad­mits to brac­ing her­self for this pub­li­ca­tion, like all oth­ers.

‘‘ You’re ner­vous,’’ Auster points out. Hustvedt says she doesn’t read re­views or pro­files. ‘‘ It’s not the mean things,’’ she says, ‘‘ it’s the things which wind up ca­su­ally wrong.’’

The one thing that The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can pulls from real life is the psy­chi­atric de­tail Hustvedt has braided into the book. Sev­eral years ago, she be­gan vol­un­teer­ing at a lo­cal men­tal in­sti­tu­tion, teach­ing writ­ing classes to pa­tients, as a way of un­der­stand­ing Erik’s mi­lieu and mind­set. She might have over- stud­ied. To prove her­self wor­thy, she passed the New York state li­cens­ing exam for psy­chol­o­gists. Part of this wound up in an­other book, in the form of a 10- page his­tory of psy­chopa­thy that Auster en­cour­aged her to cut out. ‘‘ I was so re­luc­tant to give it up, and of course he was right.’’

As usual, Auster read The Sor­rows of an Amer­i­can in progress. ‘‘ I showed it to him in 80- page chunks,’’ Hustvedt says, ‘‘ hop­ing he would say: ‘ You’re on the right path, keep go­ing.’ Which is mostly what ( he) said.’’ Mean­while, Auster read to her once a month from Man in the Dark, a short novel that will be re­leased in the US in Au­gust.

The Iraq war, which has been in Auster’s thoughts and about which he has made crit­i­cal pub­lic state­ments, is very much present in the

book. ‘‘ The whole book takes place in one night,’’ Auster says. ‘‘ It’s a man ly­ing in bed, and he can’t sleep, and he’s mak­ing up sto­ries and re­mem­ber­ing his life. But he’s mak­ing up sto­ries in or­der not to think about cer­tain things that are too de­press­ing to think about.’’

In shar­ing their work, Hustvedt is more apt to give Auster feed­back about small word changes, while he oc­ca­sion­ally iden­ti­fies things that can be cut. ‘‘ I kept telling Paul, when I came down­stairs at the end of the night, ‘ I fin­ished an­other beat’.’’ ‘‘ That’s right,’’ Auster re­mem­bers. ‘‘ Each beat was a kind of breath I had to pull out,’’ Hustvedt con­tin­ues. ‘‘ I was al­ways lis­ten­ing for the next beat.’’ ‘‘ Where to start,’’ Auster in­ter­jects. ‘‘ I started to think of the book as a fugue,’’ Hustvedt says, as much to him as to me.

In this fash­ion, Auster and Hustvedt play off each other, fin­ish­ing each other’s sen­tences, cir­cling around from the is­sues of lan­guage and me­mory run­ning through her new novel, to Kant and cog­ni­tive science. ‘‘ Can I in­ter­ject?’’ Auster asks at one point. ‘‘ I’ve never seen any­one look at a paint­ing more closely than Siri does.’’ ‘‘ I just hang out for a cou­ple hours,’’ Hustvedt ex­plains. Auster then re­minds Hustvedt how she found a phan­tom im­age in a Goya paint­ing at the Prado in Madrid sev­eral years back, caus­ing rip­ples in the art world. ‘‘ Would you say, with fig­u­ra­tive paint­ing,’’ Auster asks, ‘‘ that look­ing at paint­ings is like study­ing a text? You have nar­ra­tive in dra­matic paint­ings, and you have to know the nar­ra­tive to un­der­stand the paint­ing?’’ Hustvedt thinks about this for a bit. ‘‘ I have a very in­ter­sub­jec­tive view way of look­ing at art,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s not as if I am some su­per­hu­man be­ing who comes down from on high and ex­plains it. For me it’s a di­a­logue be­tween the traces of a con­scious­ness and my own con­scious­ness.’’

Watch­ing Auster and Hustvedt in­ter­act in­tel­lec­tu­ally, one can ap­pre­ci­ate why artists and writ­ers keep ap­pear­ing in her work. You can also see why they don’t work in the same house. ( Five years ago, while in­ter­view­ing Hustvedt, I stopped when I thought I heard some­one beat­ing on a set of drums in the house. ‘‘ That’s Paul typ­ing,’’ Hustvedt ex­plained with a wry smile.) ‘‘ I haven’t worked here for four years or so,’’ Auster says. ‘‘ We had done some work in the house and I was get­ting in­ter­rupted all the time, so I thought, ‘ To hell it with, I’m go­ing to go back to my old sys­tem of work­ing out­side the house.’ ’’

With his grav­elly voice, ten- yard- stare eyes and shelf of nov­els about the elu­sive qual­ity of me­mory, chance and iden­tity, Auster doesn’t seem like the kind of writer who would work in a sun- drenched stu­dio. But that’s ex­actly what he has been do­ing for the past few years, writ­ing in the top- floor apart­ment of a nearby brown­stone.

No­body calls, ex­cept a few peo­ple who have the num­ber. So if the phone rings, I know that it’s im­por­tant,’’ he says.

Al­though they write and think close prox­im­ity, Auster and Hustvedt are find­ing it harder to be to­gether once their books are done. Start­ing next month, when Hustvedt’s novel comes out, they are go­ing to have large chunks of time apart: which is one rea­son why they are pleased to be mak­ing their maiden voy­age to Aus­tralia for Ade­laide Writ­ers Week. I think they have you on a panel about life and me on a panel about death,’’ Auster laughs. It’s not an en­tirely comic approach. As much as they are alike, their work is vastly dif­fer­ent. Some­body said Paul’s books are built like stones and mine are like rivers,’’ Hustvedt says.

And so Amer­ica’s most pro­duc­tive lit­er­ary mill keeps pro­duc­ing, one word at a time.

Pic­ture: Stu­art Ram­son

Play­ing off each other: Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster at their Brook­lyn home

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