Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: ‘One story has become another’

Cover imageIf you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a Siri Hustvedt fan. Sixteen years after I first read it,  What I Loved remains one of my favourite contemporary novels. It’s more accessible than the complex, intensely cerebral The Blazing World, her last novel published five years ago. Memories of the Future tends more towards the former than the latter. A writer comes across the notebook she kept in 1978, the year she arrived in Manhattan fresh from Minnesota, planning to write her first novel. As S. H. reads her journal, she contemplates the version of that year remembered by her sixty-two-year-old self and how often it differs from the twenty-three-year-old’s account.

S. H. discovers her long missing diary while packing up her mother’s belongings. At first she’s amused by this record of a bright young woman’s experience in a city she’s long dreamed of inhabiting. S. H. arrives knowing no one, having negotiated a deferment of her Columbia fellowship. She finds a tiny, sparsely furnished apartment and sets about writing her novel. Three weeks pass before she has a conversation. Friends are not as easily come by as she might have hoped. She hears strange declamations from her neighbour through the walls which sets her imagination racing. Is her neighbour mad, or perhaps rehearsing a play? She meets a woman at a poetry reading who becomes her friend and soon she’s part of a small circle. Then she meets a man at a party who insists on coming home with her, refusing to take no for an answer, from whom Lucy, her mysterious neighbour, rescues her. Lucy’s story turns out to be even stranger than S. H. had imagined while her own has taken a turn that leaves her questioning the way in which men relate to women who refuse to be quiet. The older S. H. reflects on all this, interpreting and reinterpreting her twenty-three-year-old self within the context of 2017.

Hustvedt weaves her present day narrative through the 1978 diary and the comic detective story which was to have become S.H.’s first novel, exploring themes of memory, storytelling, interpretation and gender while frequently reminding us of the unreliability of her role as a narrator. She’s not the person she once was; memory becomes both flexible and down right slippery with age. As ever with Hustvedt, her book is stuffed full of literary allusions, ideas and erudition but it’s also playful in its early stages, taking a darker turn after the younger S. H. is assaulted. Her experience leads her to examine all her relationships with men, even with her beloved father who seemed incapable of imagining his daughter’s interest in his work as a doctor resulting in anything but a career as a nurse. Other men are more forthright in their resolve to keep women silent, determined in their sense of entitlement and superiority. Written in Trump’s America in the wake of the infamous pussy-grabbing tapes and the sickening misogynistic chanting of his election campaign, this is an intensely political, fiercely intelligent novel which manages to be both deeply serious and very funny at times. Another Hustvedt triumph.

26 thoughts on “Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt: ‘One story has become another’”

  1. It’s great, isn’t it. Absolutely nails all of the good stuff about autofiction (it reads like memoir with an overarching sense of coherence), and none of the bad (solipsism etc).

  2. I JUST returned this to the library – I didn’t read it because too many others were piling up. I haven’t read What I Loved (but own it) but I did enjoy The Blazing World so it sounds like I’m in for a great read when I do return to pick up Memories of the Future. Great news!

  3. It sounds intricate yet very compelling, not always an easy combination to balance. I’m really glad this delivered for you, especially given your fondness for this author.

  4. This sounds brilliant. I already know the author is quite brilliant herself after reading The Blazing World, but I think I would like this one even more!

    1. This one’s more accessible than The Blazing World but still with a strong feminist strand running through it as you’d expect from Hustvedt. I think you’ll love it, Naomi.

  5. I haven’t read any of her stuff, but this does sound tempting, especially since we are clearly roughly the same age so the idea of comparing the youthful aspiration with the achievement would probably resonate. Would you advise starting with this or do you think it’d be better to read one of her other books as a first?

  6. Lovely review, Susan. Hustvedt is also one of my favourites, I’m glad she’s retained that playfulness which is one of the things I most enjoy about her work. This sounds excellent, glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Thank you! Yes, there’s an indulgent amusement as S. H. looks back at her younger self and what she hopes to achieve which lightens the darker strand. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

  7. As a quiet tenant, with a neighbour prone to loud and strange declarations, I’m curious about this aspect of the story. (And of course I keep meaning to spend more time with her writing, as a long-time Paul Auster reader.)

  8. Somehow I’ve let Hustvedt slip off my radar so am very glad I stopped by and saw your review. I loved Blazing World (as dense as it was) so think I need to read this new book and go back and read What I Love as well. Thank you for this great review!

  9. I really like the sound of all the layers in this. I have What I Loved in the TBR and knowing your fondness for it I dug it out for promotion to the pile next to my bed, but still not got to it. I really must!

  10. Sounds promising, an author I’ve always meant to read and one I’ve gifted to others without reading myself, but will start with What I Loved and would definitely pick this up if it came my way, she sounds like an author I would enjoy certainly. Great review.

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