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2 Burnside Literature- A to Z

This title in other editions

The Sorrows of an American

by

The Sorrows of an American Cover

 

 

Excerpt

My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, Ive come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasnt. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they dont always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” Sarah squinted or kept her eyes closed most of the time because she was afraid the light would blind her. I think we all have ghosts inside us, and its better when they speak than when they dont. After my father died, I couldnt talk to him in person anymore, but I didnt stop having conversations with him in my head. I didnt stop seeing him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. And yet it was what my father hadnt said that took over my life for a while—what he hadnt told us. It turned out that he wasnt the only person who had kept secrets. On January sixth, four days after his funeral, Inga and I came across the letter in his study.

We had stayed on in Minnesota with our mother to begin tackling the job of sifting through his papers. We knew that there was a memoir he had written in the last years of his life, as well as a box containing the letters he had sent to his parents—many of them from his years as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II—but there were other things in that room we had never seen. My fathers study had a particular smell, one slightly different from the rest of the house. I wondered if all the cigarettes hed smoked and the coffee hed drunk and the rings those endless cups had left on the desk over forty years had acted upon the atmosphere of that room to produce the unmistakable odor that hit me when I walked through the door. The house is sold now. A dental surgeon bought it and did extensive renovations, but I can still see my fathers study with its wall of books, the filing cabinets, the long desk he had built himself, and the plastic organizer on it, which despite its transparency had small handwritten labels on every drawer—“Paper Clips,” “Hearing Aid Batteries,” “Keys to the Garage,” “Erasers.”

The day Inga and I began working, the weather outside was heavy. Through the large window, I looked at the thin layer of snow under an iron-colored sky. I could feel Inga standing behind me and hear her breathing. Our mother, Marit, was sleeping, and my niece, Sonia, had curled up somewhere in the house with a book. As I pulled open a file drawer, I had the abrupt thought that we were about to ransack a mans mind, dismantle an entire life, and without warning a picture of the cadaver I had dissected in medical school came to mind, its chest cavity gaping open as it lay on the table. One of my lab partners, Roger Abbot, had called the body Tweedledum, Dum Dum, or just Dum. “Erik, get a load of Dums ventricle. Hypertrophy, man.” For an instant I imagined my fathers collapsed lung inside him, and then I remembered his hand squeezing mine hard before I left his small room in the nursing home the last time I saw him alive. All at once, I felt relieved he had been cremated.

Lars Davidsens filing system was an elaborate code of letters, numbers, and colors devised to allow for a descending hierarchy within a single category. Initial notes were subordinate to first drafts, first drafts to final drafts, and so on. It wasnt only his years of teaching and writing that were in those drawers, but every article he had written, every lecture he had given, the voluminous notes he had taken, and the letters he had received from colleagues and friends over the course of more than sixty years. My father had catalogued every tool that had ever hung in the garage, every receipt for the six used cars he had owned in his lifetime, every lawnmower, and every home appliance—the extensive documentation of a long and exceptionally frugal history. We discovered a list for itemized storage in the attic: childrens skates, baby clothes, knitting materials. In a small box, I found a bunch of keys. Attached to them was a label on which my father had written in his small neat hand: “Unknown Keys.”

We spent days in that room with large black garbage bags, dumping hundreds of Christmas cards, grade books, and innumerable inventories of things that no longer existed. My niece and mother mostly avoided the room. Wired to a Walkman, Sonia ambled through the house, read Wallace Stevens, and slept in the comatose slumber that comes so easily to adolescents. From time to time she would come in to us and pat her mother on the shoulder or wrap her long thin arms around Ingas shoulders to show silent support before she floated into another room. I had been worried about Sonia ever since her father died five years earlier. I remembered her standing in the hallway outside his hospital room, her face strangely impassive, her body stiffened against the wall, and her skin so white it made me think of bones. I know that Inga tried to hide her grief from Sonia, that when her daughter was at school my sister would turn on music, lie down on the floor, and wail, but I had never seen Sonia give in to sobs, and neither had her mother. Three years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Inga and Sonia had found themselves running north with hundreds of other people as they fled Stuyvesant High School, where Sonia was a student. They were just blocks from the burning towers, and it was only later that I discovered what Sonia had seen from her schoolroom window. From my house in Brooklyn that morning, I saw only smoke.

When she wasnt resting, our mother wandered from room to room, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Her determined but light step was no heavier than in the old days, but it had slowed. She would check on us, offer food, but she rarely crossed the threshold. The room must have reminded her of my fathers last years. His worsening emphysema shrank his world in stages. Near the end, he could barely walk anymore and kept mostly to the twelve by sixteen feet of the study. Before he died, he had separated the most important papers, which were now stored in a neat row of boxes beside his desk. It was in one of these containers that Inga found the letters from women my father had known before my mother. Later, I read every word they had written to him—a trio of premarital loves—a Margaret, a June, and a Lenore, all of whom wrote fluent but tepid letters signed “Love” or “With love” or “Until next time.”

Ingas hands shook when she found the bundles. It was a tremor I had been familiar with since childhood, not related to an illness but to what my sister called her wiring. She could never predict an onset. I had seen her lecture in public with quiet hands, and I had also seen her give talks when they trembled so violently she had to hide them behind her back. After withdrawing the three bunches of letters from the long-lost but once-desired Margaret, June, and Lenore, Inga pulled out a single sheet of paper, looked down at it with a puzzled expression, and without saying anything handed it to me.

The letter was dated June 27, 1937. Beneath the date, in a large childish hand, was written: “Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It cant matter now shes in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa.”

“He wanted us to find it,” Inga said. “If not, he would have destroyed it. I showed you those journals with the pages torn out of them.” She paused. “Have you ever heard of Lisa?”

“No,” I said. “We could ask Mamma.”

Inga answered me in Norwegian, as if the subject of our mother demanded that we use her first language. “Nei, Jei vil ikke forstyrre henne med dette.” (No, I wont bother her with this.) “Ive always felt,” she continued, “that there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us, especially about his childhood. He was fifteen then. I think theyd already lost the forty acres of the farm, and unless Im wrong, it was the year after Grandpa found out his brother David was dead.” My sister looked down at the piece of pale brown paper. “‘It cant matter now shes in heaven or to the ones here on earth. Somebody died.” She swallowed loudly. “Poor Pappa, swearing on the Bible.”

 
Copyright © 2008 by Siri Hustvedt. All rights reserved.

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Chris Horne, March 28, 2009 (view all comments by Chris Horne)
How can she do what she does on a page? How does she make the pages fall away and take me into a world that I never forget? I don't know the answer, but I do know as soon as I saw she had a new book out, The Sorrows Of An American I rushed right out to buy it -- and in the last two days have been transported, once again by a world I did not know I was missing.

Like her previous books, the characters (Erick, Miranda, Eggy, and Inga, and Max) in Sorrows of an American are now a part of my life. I shut the book last night and am still thinking of their world. Missing it, actually.

While following a mystery - edged with both agitated grief -- I learned about memory, light, darkness, and art.

No question about it -- this book will not disappoint you: the kind of reading experience that makes you re-remember the power that can be found in bound pages when created by a true artist. Plus, the story here is simply - INTERESTING.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780312428204
Author:
Hustvedt, Siri
Publisher:
Picador USA
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Family life
Subject:
Psychological
Subject:
Death
Subject:
Brothers and sisters
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Family secrets
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Publication Date:
20090331
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
8.3 x 5.4 x 0.87 in

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Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » Family Life

The Sorrows of an American Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Picador USA - English 9780312428204 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by ,

When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their fathers funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously vulnerable to his patients; Inga is a writer whose late husband, a famous novelist, seems to have concealed a secret life. Interwoven with each new mystery in their lives are discoveries about their fathers youth--poverty, the War, the Depression--that bring new implications to his relationship with his children.

This masterful novel reveals one familys hidden sorrows in an "elegant meditation on familial grief, memory, and imagination" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

Siri Hustvedt is the author of three previous novels, What I Loved, The Blindfold, and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, as well as a collection of essays, A Plea for Eros. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.

Longlisted for the International IMPAC Literary Award

The Sorrows of an American is a story about the immigrant experience and the ghosts that haunt families from one generation to another. When psychiatrist Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note from an unknown woman among their dead fathers papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. Starting with the note, brother and sister uncover the Davidsen family's secrets and unbandage its wounds in the year following their fathers funeral.

The grieving siblings return to New York from Minnesota, and they continue to pursue the mystery behind the note. While Erik struggles with emotional vulnerability to his psychiatric patients and his fascination with new tenants in his building threatens to overwhelm him, Inga is confronted by a hostile journalist who seems to know a secret connected to her dead husband, who was a famous novelist. As each new mystery unfolds, Erik begins to inhabit his emotionally hidden fathers history and to glimpse how his impoverished childhood, the Depression, and the war shaped his relationship with his children. At the same time, Inga must confront the reality of her husbands double life.

The Sorrows of an American is a novel about fathers and children; listening and deafness; recognition and blindness; the pain of speaking and the pain of keeping silent; and the ambiguities of memory, loneliness, illness, and recovery. Siri Hustvedts prose reveals one familys hidden sorrows through a mosaic of secrets and stories that reflect the fragmented nature of identity itself.

"Hustvedt's descriptions of the immigrant experience and the Minnesota landscape have a spare Scandinavian elegance, while her account of the life of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst feels quietly authentic. She takes unapologetic delight in intellectual characters who understand their lives through far-ranging reading and lively conversation . . . she proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot."Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times
"The Sorrows of an American is a thought-provoking book that offers pleasures across many different registers. Hustvedt's descriptions of the immigrant experience and the Minnesota landscape have a spare Scandinavian elegance, while her account of the life of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst feels quietly authentic. She takes unapologetic delight in intellectual characters who understand their lives through far-ranging reading and lively conversation . . . Hustvedt explored the milieu of New York writers and academics in her last novel, What I Lovedin fact, Leo Hertzberg, that book's art-historian narrator, appears briefly at a dinner party at Inga's apartmentand here again she proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot."Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times

"A jarring, long-echoing evocation of the existential vertigo induced by the loss of those whom we miss most desperately, and thus of our place in their world."Ben Dickinson, Elle

"One of the most profound and absorbing books I've read in a long time. Hustvedt pushes hard on what a novel can do and what a reader can absorb, but once you fall into this captivating story the experience will make you feel alternately inadequate and brilliantand finally deeply grateful . . . Hustvedt seems unwilling to turn away any tangential character; she practices a kind of authorial hospitality that gives the book an ever-growing list of side stories. Not the least of these is told in arresting excerpts from the memoir by Erik's father that describes his childhood during the Depression and his experiences as a soldier in World War II. Erik studies this manuscript with rapt attention, knowing it contains the best chance of understanding his heritage and perhaps his own troubled soul as well. Hustvedt reveals in the acknowledgments that these stirring passages from the senior Davidsen's memoir were, in fact, taken almost verbatim from her own late father's memoir, making The Sorrows of an American a striking demonstration of its own theme: the blending of fiction and nonfiction that gives coherence to our lives . . . Hustvedt elegantly knits together these subplots, often from different genres: elements of the thriller, the hospital drama, the historical novel and even the spy caper and noir film, along with autobiographical, philosophy, letters, case studies and art criticism . . . This is a radically postmodern novel that wears its po-mo credentials with unusual grace; even at its strangest moments, it never radiates the chilly alienation that marks, say, the work of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster. The remarkable conclusion of The Sorrows is a four-page recapitulation of the story's images racing through Erik's mindand ours. It's a stunning, Joycean demonstration that invites us to impose some sense of meaning on a disparate collection of events, to satisfy our lust for 'a world that makes sense.' I reached the end emotionally and intellectually exhausted, knowing how much I'll miss this book."Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World

"In a poignant opening scene of Siri Hustvedt's fourth novel, Erik Davidsen cleans out his deceased father's desk. He finds a ring of keys meticulously labeled 'unknown,' which symbolizes the secrets that Lars, his father, has left behind. Erik and his sister, Inga, also find an unfinished memoir and a letter. The memoir, which is quoted throughout the novel, helps establish the pace of the story and is a window into his father's life before marriage and a family . . . The meditative tone of the book is poetry at its best; the language has resonance and meter and meaning. Its cadence is often in sharp contrast to bustling New York City and its inhabitants. But it is in describing Erik's pastoral Minnesota hometown that Hustvedt, a native Minnesotan, is at her best . . . Memories are as alive as the present in this book. They produce sensory scenes where characters eavesdrop into their own lives as well as into the lives of their ancestors. But the book isn't all about the interior. The characters are very much alive. Hustvedt provides nicely drawn details of both the intimate and mundane in their day-to-day lives, and she clearly has done meticulous research into psychi

"Synopsis" by ,

When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their fathers funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously vulnerable to his patients; Inga is a writer whose late husband, a famous novelist, seems to have concealed a secret life. Interwoven with each new mystery in their lives are discoveries about their fathers youth--poverty, the War, the Depression--that bring new implications to his relationship with his children.

This masterful novel reveals one familys hidden sorrows in an "elegant meditation on familial grief, memory, and imagination" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

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