On Memory, Patriarchy, and Gender in Siri Hustvedt’s Fiction
Sep 21 ● BY Rachel Duboff
If fiction is “the lie through which we tell the truth,” as Albert Camus said, then Siri Hustvedt’s fiction relays the truth that memory is more than just unreliable—it’s invented. Here memory spans a lifetime like a game of telephone, where the most significant memories, the ones turned over in nostalgia, are the ones most changed. These are the events whose truths we color in fiction, where remembrance becomes a form of reconsolidation: each time we recall the past we invariably alter it. And in a world where men hold power, Hutsvedt portrays memory as a form of elusive redemption, where the past can be rewritten to withstand the construction of gender.
Memories of the Future, Hustvedt’s seventh novel, follows three interrelated narratives: the narrator, S.H., writing about her past at sixty-one; the diary of her younger self from her early twenties in late 1970s New York, in which she calls herself “Minnesota”; and excerpts from the mystery novel Minnesota was writing during that time. Often, S.H. will comment on her younger self’s diary entries, remarking how she remembered things differently, or perhaps didn’t remember the event at all. Sometimes, S.H. refers to her younger self in the first person while at other times in the third, as if she were stepping back like an author writing a character, acknowledging the gap of memory that only reconstruction can fill. Events and their weight in the moment can disappear or fade in relevance, and, accordingly, this novel becomes a meta-investigation into the past—to discover what mattered then, what moments were kept, and most of all, how Minnesota led to who S.H. became.
S.H. warns the reader that memoirs with details such as dialogue “are not to be trusted,” but that doesn’t stop her from delving into the enigma of her own past. The novel hinges on her belief that “memory and the imagination are a single faculty.” This statement teases the autobiographical; Hustvedt’s book of essays, A Woman Looking At Men Looking At Women, similarly asserts that memory and imagination are connected. She cites their long connection in Western thought, from Aristotle locating the two in the same part of soul to Hobbes writing memory and imagination are “but one thing.” From this understanding, memoirs are less about the actual past than the writer’s decision to render that past, however maligned and fictitious.
Hustvedt’s novel structures have evolved alongside her position of memory-as-imagination. What I Loved, published in 2003, is narrated by art historian Leo Hertzberg, chronicling the friendship between Leo and artist Bill Wechsler and their families, beginning in the 1970s and extending decades afterward. It reads as a traditional, retrospective novel. And yet there are extensive lines of dialogue in Leo’s telling that S.H. of Memories of the Futuremight call out as outrageously inaccurate.
Hustvedt’s novels are in conversation with each other. What I Loved thus appears less an account of Leo and Bill and their families than the elder Leo’s attempt to reconstruct that story. Can hindsight narration be trusted? Readers are accustomed to suspending disbelief in fiction, following plot wherever it may lead. But in Hustvedt’s more recent fiction, such as The Blazing World, longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, she challenges convention, forcing the reader to confront truths fiction has no intention of concealing: the past cannot be revisited as it was. S.H. in Memories of the Future organizes her account in similar fashion, occupying “Minkowski space,” where different timelines coexist with each other on the page in a way that would be impossible otherwise.
In The Blazing World, a female artist named Harriet Burden uses three male fronts to showcase her artwork. Each exhibition gains varying degrees of success, but when Harriet reveals her identity as the artist behind the masks years later, she is not believed. The novel is a subsequent examination of such claims following Harriet’s death; it is written as a fictionalized anthology of diary entries and testimonials compiled by an editor.
Men receiving acclaim for women’s work is also on display in Memories of the Future. Minnesota fixates on the story of poet and artist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who created Fountain, a sculpture that has been falsely attributed to Marcel Duchamp. Minnesota later carries a knife around with her and names it the Baroness, inspired by her legacy of a woman underestimated for her power. When she takes out the knife, Minnesota exudes a strength conventionally portrayed as masculine. The symbolism is clear: on its own, a woman’s work is as steadfast as that of a man’s, if not more so.
But women are hardly given the opportunity for their work to be judged free of gendered assumptions. Hustvedt calls it the “yuck factor,” or an unpleasant feeling of realizing a woman is the creator behind the work. In Memories of the Future, S.H. recognizes this implicit gender bias that her younger self experiences in real time. It’s what Mia Fredricksen, the protagonist in Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men, acknowledges when she says men who read novels like “to have a masculine name on the cover,” or declare their disinterest in fiction entirely, as if its high percentage of female readership taints the act with infectious femininity.
The Blazing World hinges on an Oscar Wilde quote referenced in the book: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Only with Harriet’s fronts is her art received by its merit. In this practice, her all-consuming question permeates: “Were we just one person or were we all many?” Harriet believed her varying personas were an integral, neglected part of her; as a woman, it was necessary to utilize them to free the part of herself that had been bogged down from the power of men.
Similarly, in The Blindfold, Hustvedt’s debut novel, Iris Vegan, a young graduate student, begins going out in New York dressed as a man named Klaus. Iris cuts off her hair, wears a suit, and feels “transformed.” She is less hesitant and speaks with an effortless midwestern accent. Each night as Klaus, she “blurred her gender.” To her, Klaus was a rebirth, and walking around felt like “acting on some insane wish.” Yet managing her dual identities—Iris by day, Klaus by night—became too much. The freedom she felt as Klaus was instructive, where encompassing a different gender allowed her to access a life she had never known.
Gender performance in a world where women are subservient to men exists beyond the act of cross-dressing. Before venturing out as Klaus, Iris describes a painting she had seen years prior. She depicts the painting in remarkable detail—a woman nursing a child on a riverbank, naked but for a cloth, the foliage, the city’s buildings, even the shading of light and the feeling of illumination it renders. And yet this impeccable memory is incomplete: she neglects to mention that a man is in the foreground. On a surface-level reading, Iris’s memory lapse is telling. If memory inhabits the same faculty as imagination, as Hustvedt would one day write, then in her invention, the painting is devoid of a man.
Another character in The Blindfold, Paris, has a different explanation. Iris blacked out the man because she “entered the painting so completely,” he says. She “became the man,” and in effect, “stepped into his shoes and promptly deleted him from the painting… [she] saw him but didn’t see him.” He believes it was natural for Iris to forget the man.
In memory, Iris doesn’t forget the man—she is the man. While sure of her memory, a gap separates past reality and present recollection, and this presents a unique possibility that had never before existed. The lesson is plain: when women author their own stories, they can shed accuracy, and by becoming the man, enter the foreground.
And yet invented memory can serve as more than just a way to claim a male-like authority. In Memories of the Future, S.H.’s reflections are tinged with a surprising sympathy—from being told as a child she would make a good nurse, to the assumption from a man at a dinner party she had nothing to add to a philosophical debate, to being sexually assaulted. In the immediate aftermath of the assault, Minnesota asks herself why she didn’t leave when something was amiss. But S.H. has the distance of decades to know Minnesota is at no fault as a victim, and such admission does more to correct the record than rewrite her younger self’s interpretations.
S.H. asks, “Can the past serve as a hiding place from the present?” This question is what the narrative is built around, along with the narration in Hustvedt’s other works as well. S.H.’s reflections on Minnesota invite the reader not only to study the changes between then and now, but also to think about the individual and societal reasonings for thinking back on the past. If the answer in The Blindfold is to become the man with all the access that entails, then Memories of the Future’s answer, set in the slow-burn indignation of the Trump era, reads more tragic in its escapism.
There is a stark disparity in the book’s design—the varying fonts between the entries, the sporadic cartoons—and so Memories of the Future reads like a lament,. There is desperation in each narrator, and while Minnesota’s year in New York has a satisfying enough arc by the end, S.H.’s narrative falls short. Any reader dissatisfaction is no failure on Hustvedt’s part; eventually, the person remembering has to leave their fiction and enter back into reality. If S.H. is resigned in the present, she is not alone.
Memory and its twin, imagination, are ultimately left to the creation of the narrators. Journeys into the imagined past are protected by what Hustvedt referenced in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women as the “aesthetic illusion,” a term coined by psychoanalyst Ernst Kris that references the wall between an “artist’s multiple selves and the alters of a traumatized, dissociated patient.” Harriet’s question echoes back, asking if we are just one person or many. The answer in Hustvedt’s fiction lies in the effect of both remembrance and creation, where, through reading just as in writing, we can transform into more than just our present selves or actual past selves—we can even adopt a gender not our own.