“… we all go to pieces with our patients at one time or another. We all go to pieces now and then even without a patient to help us along. Your grief makes you more fragile. You know I’ve always thought of wholeness and integration as necessary myths. We’re fragmented beings who cement ourselves together, but there are always cracks. Living with the cracks is part of being.” – The Sorrows of an American, Siri Hustvedt
The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt is, as Jane Smiley points out in the Guardian, “beautifully thought through, deeply serious and enormously intelligent”. It is a complex novel narrated by a New York psychoanalyst, Erik Davidsen, who is coming to terms with his beloved father’s death as well as the failure of his own marriage. It is two years after the tragedy of 9/11 and his sister Inga, a philosopher / writer is also mourning the death of her husband Max, a famous novelist. Erik is also preoccupied with his tenant, a beautiful Jamaican woman, while Inga is trying to discover the contents and meaning of seven letters which Max wrote to a former lover.
Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Sorrows were the carefully described observations Erik makes in reference to his patients, himself and his family. Erik’s style of therapy sits easily with me and I admired his ability to reflect on his own feelings with such clarity and detail. Hustvedt has this aspect of the novel down to a fine art. But there was also something quite anti-climactic about this novel. I found it dragged in the middle and it left me rather unsatisfied. Perhaps Erik Davidsen seems rather tame as a main character. Hustvedt does a good job of portraying him as a ‘wounded healer’. As one of the characters points out, it is the cracks that let the light in, and Erik’s own crackedness, while not fully explored, is what makes him interesting and likeable as a character. When he’s doing therapy he’s controlled, rational and reasonable but in his own time he’s wrestling with personal and familial troubles.
Reviewing Sorrows in the New York Times, Sylvia Brownrigg puts it well:
While (frustratingly) reticent about his ex-wife and the reason for their split, he [Erik] speaks at length about his ambiguous attachment to Miranda, his new downstairs tenant, a Jamaican woman with a lively 5-year-old daughter and a manipulative, sinister boyfriend. Observing himself with the same care he brings to his patients, Erik remarks on his uncharacteristically obsessive behaviour in relation to Miranda: “My solitude had gradually begun to alter me, to turn me into a man I had not expected. … I’ve often thought that none of us is what we imagine, that each of us normalizes the terrible strangeness of inner life with a variety of convenient fictions.”
For me, this is what makes psychology and literature so important to one another. We all have ‘convenient fictions’ and it is in telling our stories that we make meaning of our lives. On another level, Smiley comments that for all the novel’s considerable strengths, she finds it most interesting for the way in which it fails. “There is a reason why Freud and Kafka belong to one culture, and Ibsen and Sigrid Undset belong to another,” she argues. “It’s a rare Scandinavian writer who expects any sorrows at all, even those of an American, to be healed by mere memory.” This is an interesting argument, connecting the stoicism of Scandanavian storytelling with the healing work of sorting through memory that psychoanalysis offers.
On a personal note, it’s been a rough few days here at the Couch Trip. I’m going to be trying to take things easy for a week or two but I’ll still hopefully be reading and commenting. Incidentally, the photo at the top is from the military base where I work. I liked the way it gives a glimpse into another world.