We all have those authors that we’ve meant to read for a long time, but somehow they keep slipping our attention. Siri Hustvedt is one of those authors for me. I’ve been meaning to read What I Loved - her most well-known work - for a long time, and now she’s just released The Blazing World to great reviews, so it seemed time for me to catch up. Recently I picked up both What I Loved and The Blindfold from second hand bookstores and so finally, here we are. I began with The Blindfold, Hustvedt’s debut published in 1992, and I absolutely devoured it.
The Blindfold is an exploration of identity through relationships, gender and health. Through the novel’s four parts, we follow Iris Vegan, a twenty-something graduate student struggling against the enormity of the world in New York and the power struggles within male/female relationships. Each section of the book ties Iris to a powerful male character, each of whom have a strong influence on Iris’ life, threatening her fragility.
A loss of control is a connecting thread throughout the novel. There’s the photograph taken by her friend George which is cropped and processed in such a way as to dismember her body. A photograph which Iris voices her anger over but of which she has little control, she begins to be recognised from it as it takes on a life of its own. Or there is her employer Mr Morning, who hires Iris to write and record stories one at a time of the remaining possessions of a murder victim.
Iris feels so overwhelmed by these men that once she has freed herself from their grasp, she spends the evenings of one summer as Klaus, dressed in a ragged suit and exploring her own idea of gender identification through androyny. Becoming a man is the only way she is able to take back the power they have taken from her.
By becoming Klaus at night I had effectively blurred my gender. The suit, my clipped head and unadorned face altered the world’s view of who I was, and I became someone else through its eyes.
But at the end of the summer, she is rescued by a man who finds her in poor health. Taking power over herself has destroyed herself from the inside out. Hustvedt is not afraid to push the limits of protection versus intimidation in male/female relationships, and the sinister quality that each of these men possess (including Klaus) makes the book constantly teeter on the edge of a thriller.
There’s also an exploration of something that many women explore in their twenties: a desire to speed up your own coming-of-age by spending time with older men. Again, it’s a strong element of her exploration of power in relationships and it is written with intelligence and grace. Hustvedt understands young women with a hindsight that is unrelentingly truthful but never derogatory. She understands that we become who we are by exploring what you can get away with and what you feel comfortable with morally by pushing yourself to the limits.
Though this makes The Blindfold seem like a novel for younger readers, there’s a timeless narrative that would draw in readers young and old. The evocative language of Hustvedt is perhaps at its most overwhelming when describing the poverty Iris endures. Similar to Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, The Blindfold also acts as an incredibly poignant dissertation on the life of an artist, with its financial and emotional pressure, and its ability to overwhelm.
I took a taxi home, watching my money tick away on the meter and remembering I owed Stephen thirty dollars I didn’t have. I rolled down the window and let the air blow over me as the driver sped up Tenth Avenue hitting one green light after another. I read the neon letters that hung in the darkness over the street, suspended in the nothingness of hidden buildings and walls, signs advertising obscure products and places. I knew that some of them were names for things that no longer existed—dead companies, vacant hotels. This thought filled me with sadness, and I cried noiselessly in the back of the cab until it stopped at 109th Street. Before I put my key in the door, I look up at the sky for stars. There were many that night, and their presence was as reassuring to me as the dreams of heaven I used to have as a child.
What connected me most to this novel was the early exploration of power in the relationship between a person and their health. Hustvedt has a well documented condition that brings on powerful, debilitating migraines and this element of the story is obviously autobiographical, but she has written subjectively enough that the reader can easily find themselves in her words. When Iris is briefly hospitalised for her migraines, Hustvedt delivers this incredibly powerful statement on blame and fault in sickness:
They changed my bed and filled my water pitcher, but they rarely spoke to me. They seemed suspicious. And I didn’t demand further attention, because I was guilty. It was clear to me that I had made the headache, created the monster myself, and just because I couldn’t get rid of the damned thing didn’t mean I wasn’t to blame.
I have ongoing health issues that I have struggled with for almost twenty of my thirty-two years. When you have trouble with your health no one tells you how much it will play with your mind. Even when you are well, it still consumes you. Every day I am afraid of being in pain, despite knowing that it’s currently under control. When you are unwell, you are so often told or made to feel that it’s a result of laziness that you begin to feel like it must be your fault. You haven’t found the right treatment yet, not your doctors. You aren’t working hard enough. You should shake it off and keep going. Recently ongoing issues regarding my health have been coming back into conversation and it stirs up all of these feelings of guilt, blame and vulnerability all over again. Hustvedt articulates these thoughts so clearly it hurt. After a graphic description of Iris’ body failing her, this passage on the fog that haunts you during these episodes is incredible:
I used my shoulder to push open the heavy bathroom door and then walked slowly across the room, clutching the back of my gown so that it wouldn’t fly open. I sat down on the edge of the bed and remained sitting there for a long time. The light seemed unusually dim to me, and I looked out the window toward the stone-gray wall of another building. It was dark outside, and large snowflakes were falling steadily.
“It’s snowing,” I said.
“Of course it is,” said Mrs M. “It’s been snowing for days.”
What is most powerful about Hustvedt’s exploration of power in the relationship between a woman and her own health, is that it’s set amongst a broader conversation of power between men and women. In so many cases in our lives, sickness becomes a masculine idea. It stops us from looking beautiful, from being able to care for those around us, from making us feel feminine. It takes us over with power and strength that we cannot match. Ill health is like a bad relationship that we cannot escape from: it makes us vulnerable, frightened and fragile both physically and emotionally. Hustvedt knows this from her own experience and articulates it like no other I have read before her.
The Blindfold is a really interesting work that throws out big questions, mulling them over only to raise more. It is an incredible work of feminism, but never iron-handed. Hustvedt works hard to ensure she does not judge any of her characters, and as such leaves the reader with an open mind to explore their own judgements. It’s a really incredible achievement at any stage of a career, but as a debut is spell-binding. I cannot wait to explore more of what Hustvedt has to say.
Sometimes it’s not only nice, but necessary, to forget the big things and just focus on what’s around you. Making a nice meal on a weeknight, sitting down with your partner and just enjoying the moment. Recently I made Veal Scallopini, serving it with roast potatoes, green beans and asparagus. I cooked the veal in a pan for just a few minutes on each side, before leaving it to rest while I made a quick but delicious sauce. In the same pan, I melted butter before adding a clove of sliced garlic and letting it cook for just a minute, before adding a small handful of chopped parsley, the juice of half a lemon and then draining the juices from the resting meat back into the pan. Spooning it over the veal it makes for a quick but indulgent sauce, and would also work just as well with steak. Just the thing for taking some time to remind yourself of the little joys around you.
Recently I’ve also read Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. It’s not a memoir, but more a collection of thoughts, moments and portraits of herself and people in her life. It is incredibly dense reading, with short, sharp sentences that hit like staccato notes, and it feels almost immediately like the kind of work that needs to be read several times and pulled apart. But it remains rewarding reading with some of the most immediate pay-offs coming from beautiful and astute observations around sense of place, such as in Part One (the most memoir-like chapter in the book), where she talks of her relationship with New York and says succinctly and profoundly “I place myself amongst the imports.”