Illustration by Siri Hustvedt / Image from the book
Illustration by Siri Hustvedt / Image from the book

"What is memory if my earlier self is still out there somewhere unchanged?”

It is 1978 and a jam-packed New York City is brimming with art and opportunity. A young girl of 23 arrives, looking for a ‘hero’ for her ambitious debut novel. Four decades later, our now wiser protagonist brings her earlier self to life through revisiting her old journals that contain momentous, and sometimes terrifying, memories of her time in the sensational city. She is consciously aware of her complex and unstoppable train of thought as she begins to draw out memories that were often nonchalant, sometimes stupendous. As she writes under the initials S.H., she also establishes a point of view for her younger self, whose sobriquet is borrowed from her place of birth: Minnesota.

The novel Memories of the Future is a semi-fictionalised autobiography of a year in the life of the author Siri Hustvedt. It is a book that consciously broods and touches upon many themes: the intellectual ambitions of women writers, sexual assaults that raise concerns about the hesitation in speaking out, new and unexpected friendships, and the irrefutable persistence of misogynistic wrath in contemporary society.

The two protagonists that inform the discussion for the reader — the young and reserved Minnesota and her older, contemplative self S.H. — shift between memories, weaving detail that is either very real or neatly crafted (or both), yet deeply personal and reflective. “If you are one of those readers who relishes memoirs filled with impossibly specific memories, I have this to say: those authors who claim perfect recall of their hash browns decades later are not to be trusted,” warns S.H. early on.

Hustvedt is a serious writer, for she never intends to dilly-dally with her prose. In her very excellent and Man Booker Prize longlisted novel The Blazing World (2014), Hustvedt fictionalised about a female artist who presents her works disguised as if created by three male artists. The world applauds, but when her identity is revealed, not many believe her ruse. The Blazing World combined various fields such as neurology and philosophy in its text; a similar case happens with Memories of the Future, whose semi-academic and crunchy tone may make it somewhat a dry read for those who prefer rapid paced narration. However, a sharp reader will see it as crisp fiction that is grounded in truth and intellectual thought, which is why Memories of the Future is a satisfying perusal, especially for Hustvedt’s readers.

A Booker Prize-longlisted author summons her younger self to write a semi-fictionalised autobiography

“If the composition book is testimony to anything, it is that my emotions were far too volatile when I was young,” muses S.H. Her younger self, Minnesota, might be inexperienced and jumpy, but she is not naive. She is well read in philosophy and literature and deliberates about art quite often. S.H.’s musings are not ostentatious; in fact, she laments how intellectual output by female authors is often considered as gimmicks, fake personas and pretentious cover-ups in a world where we seem to rely mostly on male authority.

Minnesota’s ultimate muse is the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a reclusive figure in art history and poetry, whose idea for the urinal was purportedly stolen and exhibited as the ‘Fountain’ by modern artist Marcel Duchamp. Minnesota often shudders at one memory when she was almost seriously assaulted; she is saved from her “to-be rapist” by her mysterious middle-aged neighbour Lucy, who chases the repulsive man away with a broom. A friend then gifts her a switchblade for self-defence, which Minnesota nicknames the “Baroness” in the under-credited Baroness’ honour.

Before making acquaintances with Lucy, Minnesota eavesdrops on her distraught next-door neighbour every other night — she is unreasonably audible with her chanting and spitting of mysterious monologues directed at a dead daughter and distraught lover. Once Lucy saves her from rape, she introduces Minnesota to other friends, who are a coven of self-pronounced “witches.” Through their conversations, S.H. reflects upon the lost narration of the female experience in history, for instance, the absence of portrayal of women giving birth in Western 20th century art, or the ability of women to contribute intellectually in a discussion of philosophy.

In the meanwhile, readers are introduced to Minnesota’s buddy Whitney and to the seemingly effortless yet increasingly complex relationship developing between an “Ian” and an “Isadora”, the budding young characters in Minnesota’s to-be novel. It is interesting to note at this point that, although Hustvedt had published two books in the 1990s, her actual first novel — the groundbreaking What I Loved — finally came out in 2003, and had nothing to do with Ian or Isadora. Instead, the book was a refreshing merger of relationships between friends, families and the New York art world. Many years later, Minnesota may have finally found her hero in What I Loved: the squalid and glitzy New York City!

Memories of the Future may not be for everyone. But then, no novel is for everyone. The prose is sometimes funny, at other times fiercely blunt and brings many things mindfully out in the open — the author’s relationship with her mother, politics, her guilt over not writing a lot, and not being vocal about the biased assumptions of male peers that women can never be good writers. The text has a dedicated tone of authenticity, blurring myth and memory so finely that, by the end, a reader may not cease meditating over Hustvedt’s complex ideas. For, as S.H. suggests, “let us not forget that a memory is always in the present.”

The reviewer is an art historian and a keen discoverer of fabulous literature. She attended SUNY Stony Brook as a Fulbright Scholar and tweets at @nageenjs

Memories of the Future
By Siri Hustvedt
Sceptre, UK
ISBN: 978-1473694460
314pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 26th, 2020