I am grateful to my sister for introducing me to author Siri Hustvedt, and once I discovered this American author, there is no end to where I see her. Of Norwegian descent and speaking Norwegian as her first language, Hustvedt’s latest work, The Blazing World (2014), in a world first, was turned into a performance by Copenhagen theatre company, Mungo Park, currently performed at Avenue-T until June. Then, on Friday in my neighbourhood on Nørrebro, a small international bookshop, ARK Books, launched the Ark First Edition, a small, hand bound book, in only six copies, with two previously unpublished texts, one by Hustvedt and the other by her author husband Paul Auster. Like meeting old friends unexpectedly on the streets, really.
I started my acquaintance with Hustvedt by reading The Summer Without Men (2011), a book about a poet who returns to her childhood hometown, Bonden, for the summer when her husband engages in an affair. In Bonden a number of parallel stories take place – the bullying story of the prepubescent girls in her poetry class, the domestic violence story in the home of the young family living next to her rented house and story of the approaching, the story of the Swans, her mother’s ailing friends at the protected housing for elders as well as the story about how one forgives one’s husband of 30 years. Each story has its own narrative arch and drama, and the narrator eloquently weaves their present and past into one to the other.
It was the narrator’s meta narrative about being a female writer that really had me interested. She draws no explicit links to Virgina Woolf‘s A Room of One’s Own, when she writes that there seldom had been room for her in her family life, that she was a scribbler of stolen interval. Her summer without men gives her a room she has not experienced previously. It gives her space to muse over the nature of marriage (marriage lifts the voluntary blindness of besottedness and over the years grows the partners into one organism, and develops another type of blindness where one feels, more than sees, one’s partner), the difference between men and women (she lands on a ‘scientific’ finding that women have superior verbal skills, sarcastically noting how this is seen by the fact that the titans of contemporary literature are overwhelmingly women – not), and mortality (we are all dying one by one, we all smell of mortality and we can’t wash it off – there is nothing we can do about it, except perhaps burst into song. Priceless).
Hustvedt’s treatment of the past, the present and the future resonated with me. Lucidly, I saw that the present is so short we can hardly grasp its opportunity for joy or even sadness. On the other hand, the past gets longer with each passing moment, and we can recall the joy in rosy memory, and the sorrow in wallowing darkness. The future is stretched before us, like a wide open road that shortens with each moment of our mortal present. We pave this road with our hopes, dreams and fears to reach our ultimate end.
Hustvedt’s writing reminded me that we can never return to our past: things will never again be what they were. All we can do is use the present to make sense of the past and hopefully learn from it to shape our future. Moreover, our hopes and dreams and the planning we do in the present to make them come true can never help us travel into that exact future we picture: our future will never be exactly what we hope for. We can act on the present to change the future, but once we reach that future it will be our present and we will no longer be who we were: we are affected by – and in turn affect – each present moment until then.
All we have for sure is the fleeting present, constantly arround us, in us and through us. It is what it is, but never entirely graspable and steady for closer immidiate examination. It is hardest for the fish to describe the aquarium it swims in. Only when the present becomes past can we see it in memory’s light, never entirely illuminating as memory is.
This insight makes it even more important to calm my busy brain and adjust my taught values of achievement and doing over being, so I can just be in the now.
How do you balance living in the now with remembering the past and planning for the future?