Reading to you - the life and writing of Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster / by Alex Williamson

Interviewer: Who is your first reader?

Paul Auster: The woman upstairs [Siri Hustvedt]. […] I trust her completely, her judgement, her sense of things. She understands what I’m trying to do. You can’t talk to someone who doesn’t share your ideas about the world, or who doesn’t at least try to understand what you are trying to do…She always has comments. Some of them are miniscule prose questions, and once in a while she asks a bigger question. But I don’t think I’ve ever taken her advice on a big question.[1]

Paul and I rely on each other absolutely as first readers of each other’s work. We read each other’s books in progress and then when a book is finished, we each become an editor. Admittedly, these editorial suggestions are often tiny — on the level of the sentence, removing an adjective, noting an infelicitous repetition, etc. — but every once in a while one of us has made a substantive comment to the other, and we have always heeded the other’s advice. Every writer needs a reader. Paul and I have been lucky to have that reader “in house,” so to speak.[2]

In 1981, Siri Hustvedt, a 26-year-old student at Columbia, attended a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y with a friend. After the reading, Hustvedt saw ‘a beautiful man’, whom her friend identified as Paul Auster, ‘the poet’. They began talking, spent the evening in deep conversation and, in her words, ‘have been talking about books and ideas for a long time’. So began a relationship and collaborative literary partnership that has endured for over thirty years.

My doctoral research into the origin and subsequent development of their unique literary partnership will touch upon the relationship of their writing to postmodernist fiction and poststructuralist discourse, which has informed the structural framework of their fiction, underpinned by a shared interest in intersubjectivity which delineates the consciously and unconsciously collaborative nature of their writing. Aside from the surface, stylistic differences, both use narrative to explore analogous theoretical and interdisciplinary paradigms; both meld and blur fact, fiction and autobiography in their narratives; both use dialogic intertextuality and transfictional identities as a means to reflect empathic relationality; and both rely on the other as their first reader. The latter is particularly critical – in an editorial-technical, literary-theoretical and quotidian-emotional sense.

In critical terms, Auster’s writing has been closely associated with the deconstructive strategies of postmodern fiction.[3] Less critical attention has been paid to Hustvedt’s writing, although her early fiction, particularly her debut novel The Blindfold, evidences many of the postmodernist traits identified by Hans Bertens and Joseph Natoli: ‘other-determination, desire, contingency, change, difference, and absence (of self and meaning)’.[4] Hubert Zapf has connected Hustvedt to what he terms an overtly-ethical ‘after postmodernism’ period,[5] while Elizabeth Kovac goes further, placing Hustvedt’s post-9/11 narratives within what Timothy Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker label ‘metamodernism’,[6] a new cultural mode which ‘oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naivety and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity’.[7] It is possible to begin thinking of Auster’s work in relation to this critical framework.

Vermeulen and van den Akker identify a ‘both-neither’ dynamic in metamodernist aesthetics, what they describe as ‘metaxis’, the ‘between’ or what Eric Vogelin termed ‘the language of tension’.[8] This finds a linguistically-symbiotic alternate in Hustvedt’s own explorations of ontological and epistemological separation in a Cartesian sense, and her identification of a gap, split, or between-space where what things get, in her words, ‘messy’, ‘mushy’ or ‘mixed’. We see further echoes of this in philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of ‘the Between’, what Sigmund Freud terms the imaginative ‘Tummelplatz’ (or playground), and what D.W. Winnicott calls the ‘potential or transitional space’: a zone of transference bisecting consciousness and unconsciousness which sees a dialogic interplay of perception, memory, and the imagination. Hustvedt believes ‘we are living in a secret place we make between us, a place where the real and unreal commingle’.[9] Elsewhere she has referred to an ‘enchanted space’ and a ‘zone of focused ambiguity’ where intellectual and imaginative play interact. This separation of the real and imaginary, epistemological and ontological, conscious and unconscious is made concrete in the discursive, collaborative interaction of Hustvedt’s fiction with that of her husband.

While the physical separation of embodied entities seems to corroborate and complement the ontological-epistemological split described by Descartes, it also engenders the cognitive mirroring described by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the socially-grounded dialogism of Russian formalist Mikael Bakhtin, and the phenomenological intentionality of Edmund Husserl. From their early fiction, Hustvedt and Auster effect a delineation of poststructural linguistics and Lacanian psychoanalysis via the dialogical mode of Bakhtin and the intentionality and intersubjectivity of Husserl.

Transcending these theories, a common interest in storytelling and hermeneutics: the exegetic responsibility of writer and reader which, in according to Wolfgang Iser by way of Roland Barthes, ‘brings the literary work into existence’, and facilitates the removal of the ‘subject-object division that constitutes all perception’.[10] Their role as first reader of the other’s work – and the editorial responsibilities that encompasses – serves to stimulate their apprehension of these theories: each ‘set the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses’ within each other.[11] They live together, they write separately, they critique collaboratively – a collaboration consciously and unconsciously intersubjective.

In Winter Journal, Auster’s third memoir, the author describes looking at his sleeping wife one morning:

This morning, in the dimness of another January dawn, a scumbled, grayish light seeping into the bedroom, and there is your wife’s face turned toward your face, her eyes closed, still fast asleep, the covers pulled all the way up to her neck, her head the only part of her that is visible, and you marvel at how beautiful she looks, how young she looks, even now, thirty years after you first slept with her, after thirty years of living together under the same roof and sharing the same bed.[12]

The description of Hustvedt in repose emphasises his emotional dependency, foreshadowing the book’s descriptions of physical infirmity, vulnerability and old age. Very few married writers describe so openly their desire for one another without applying the perception-altering, privacy-concealing prism of an alter-ego. Auster believes City of Glass, the first part of The New York Trilogy – into which he inserted narrativised versions of himself, his wife Siri and his son Daniel – effectively codifies his love for Siri: ‘On the most personal level, I think of City of Glass as an homage to my wife…an attempt to imagine what life would have been like if I hadn’t met her’.[13] According to Hustvedt, ‘Our work has been an intimate part of our love affair and marriage for twenty-three years, but what I read wasn’t then and isn’t now what I know when I’m with him. His work comes from the place in him I can’t know’:[14]

I don’t think enduring love is rational any more than momentary love. I have been married to the same man for fifteen years, and I can’t explain why he still attracts me as an erotic object…It is not because we are so close or know each other so well. That solidifies our friendship, not our attraction. The attraction remains because there is something about him that I can’t reach, something strange and estranging…It must be between us – an enchanted space that is wholly unreasonable and, at least in part, imaginary. There is still a fence for me to cross and, on the other side of it, a secret.[15]

This metafictional transgression of textual boundaries by the work of the other indicates their dialogic approach to literary production. Their novels actively encircle and transgress one another in dialogically collaborative mode. In the narrative of a later novel, Leviathan, Auster inserts into the text the protagonist of Hustvedt’s debut novel, The Blindfold – a young woman named Iris Vegan, of whom Hustvedt remarked ‘She and I aren’t the same person, but she’s close to me’.[16] These intertextual moments constitute an ongoing dialogue, conscious moments of transfictional discursivity and – for want of better terminology – a form of narrativised flirtation between husband and wife. It is a technique which deepens and enriches the shape of their fiction while playfully problematizing notions of authorship.

In her novel The Summer Without Men, Hustvedt’s narrator, the poet Mia Fredricksen, relates the disjuncture between correlation and cause to ‘‘the music of chance’ as one prominent American novelist has phrased it’.[17] The Music of Chance being the title of Auster’s fourth novel. Chance – particularly the movement of characters between positions of financial security and poverty – has been a defining theme of Auster’s work, with the author remarking: ‘In the strictest sense of the word, I consider myself a realist. Chance is a part of reality: we are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence; the unexpected occurs with almost numbing reality in all our lives’.[18] At the close of her novel, Hustvedt issues another ironic comment upon serendipitous fortune when one of her characters is bequeathed a significant sum of money: ‘Let us be fair: This happens all the time in twentieth- and twenty-first-century LIFE; it just happens less often in twentieth- and twenty-first-century NOVELS’).[19]

The flirtatious exchanges of their fiction show that neither Auster nor Hustvedt are wholly committed to literary realism; yet, nor can they be considered experimental writers in a modernist sense, nor overtly ironic in the postmodern one. Hustvedt and Auster’s metamodernistic writings are ethically oriented around literary possibilities of relationality, phenomenology and hermeneutics, and are characterised by an intersubjective, intertextual approach. Almost all critical approaches to Auster’s writing to date have overlooked Hustvedt’s influence in bringing a range of critical theories to his attention; in inverse proportionality to the media depictions of Hustvedt as ‘Paul Auster’s wife, who also writes, isn’t that nice?’. In an interview Auster remarked: ‘Your language, your memories, your sense of isolation – every thought in your head has been born from your connection to others’.[20] Hustvedt, meanwhile, makes this observation of criticism linking Auster’s writing to that of of Lacan:

I have repeatedly been informed by all and sundry about Paul’s expertise on the work of Jacques Lacan. Paul has read exactly one work by Lacan, ‘The Purloined Letter’, which he came across sometime in the late Sixties. That was it. I, on the other hand, have had an abiding interest in psychoanalysis since I was in high school and worked hard at understanding Lacan, who is often difficult and maddening, and for whom I have respect but also profound disagreements, and yet, I know well that whatever Paul knows about Lacan has come via his wife.[21]

While clearly very different in terms of technical style and authorial voice, Hustvedt and Auster’s fiction can be read as consciously and unconsciously collaborative, characterised by a dialogic intertextuality which can only found in the discursive, intersubjective spaces unique to their relationship.

[1] Paul Auster and Michel Contat, ‘The Manuscript in the Book: A Conversation’, pp. 173-175.

[2] Siri Hustvedt, ‘Interview with Tyler Malone’ in Full Stop (25 October 2012), [Accessed 11 November 2015].

[3] Paul Auster, ‘Interview with Joseph Malia’, BOMB (23: Spring, 1988),, XX.

[4] Bertens and Natoli, p. xii.

[5] Hubert Zapf, ‘Narrative, Ethics, and Postmodern Art in Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved’ in Ethics in Culture: The Dissemination of Values Through Literature and Other Media, ed. by Astrid Erll, Herbert Grabes and Ansgar Nünning (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), p. 171.

[6] Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ in Journal of Aesthetics and Culture (2, 2010), <> [Accessed 12 May 2015].

[7] Elizabeth Kovac, ‘Violated Securities: Symptoms of a post-9/11 Zeitgeist in Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American’ in eTransfers: A Postgraduate eJournal for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies (Issue 2: 2012),, accessed 11 May 2015.

[8] Vermeulen and van den Akker.

[9] Siri Hustvedt, ‘A Plea for Eros’, p. 61.

[10] Wolfgang Iser, ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’ in Reader Response Criticism – From Formalism to Poststructuralism, ed. Jane P. Thompkins (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1980), p. 50.

[11] Iser, p. 51.

[12] Paul Auster, Winter Journal (London: Faber, 2012), p. 4.

[13] Paul Auster, ‘Interview with Joseph Mallia’, BOMB (23: Spring, 1988), p. 27.

[14] Siri Hustvedt, ‘A Plea for Eros’ in A Plea for Eros, p. 227.

[15] Siri Hustvedt, ‘Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self’ in A Plea for Eros (London: Sceptre, 2006), p. 227.

[16] Siri Hustvedt, ‘Yonder’ in A Plea for Eros, p. 32.

[17] Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men (Sceptre: London, 2011), p. 166.

[18] Paul Auster, Interview with Larry McCafferty and Sinda Gregory in Collected Prose, p. 539.

[19] Hustvedt, TSOWM, p. 198.

[20] Auster, CP, p. 560.

[21] Siri Hustvedt, ‘Interview with Tyler Malone’ in Full Stop (25 October 2012), <> [Accessed 05 September 2015].