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Excerpt from Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Memories of the Future

by Siri Hustvedt

Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt X
Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 336 pages

    Mar 2020, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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Print Excerpt

I studied the bums and panhandlers and bag ladies at various stages of descent into the indignities of the street. Years before my arrival in New York City, the powers-that-were-at-the-time had opened the doors of psychiatric wards and released their patients into a dubious freedom. Mad people skulked on the platforms, picking at their sores. Some shouted verses. Some sang or whined or preached about Jesus coming or Jehovah's wrath, and some sat silently in black corners, reduced to husks of despair. I inhaled the stench of their unwashed bodies, an odor wholly new to me, and held my breath.

The rhyme and reason of Manhattan's streets would have to wait. How one neighborhood related to another could be traced on the map I carried around with me, but it still had no carnal logic. When I leapt up the steps into the sun and the crowds, and my shoes hit the baked asphalt and melting tar, and I heard through the talk and traffic and general roar the cacophony of music from boom boxes hoisted on shoulders or swinging at thighs like suitcases, my skin bristled, my head felt light, and I prepared for the coming sensual assault. I remember my first walk down pushy, pungent Canal Street, the bronzed ducks that hung by their feet through greasy glass, the tubs of shining whole fishes, the baskets and cardboard boxes laden with grains and vegetables, and the fruits I would only later learn to name: star fruit, mangosteen, breadfruit, and longan.

There were the squalid pleasures of walks through Times Square—the signs that lured patrons with X and XX and XXX and burlesque, also spelled burlesk and bur_esk (due to fallen l), peep shows and the Paradise Playhouse and Filthy's and Circus Circus with live girls onstage for just a quarter and "$10 dollars complete," and the silhouettes of naked women with jutting breasts and long legs above the marquees, and views of pizza parlors and game rooms and grim little laundry shops with brown paper packages tied with string piled high and the litter that leapt and twirled when the wind blew and three-card monte cheats who set up on the sidewalk to scam the suckers and the men with their shirtsleeves rolled to their elbows in the hot air who paused on the sidewalk, held captive for a moment by the promise of jiggling flesh and speedy relief, before they either walked inside to get some satisfaction or turned left or right and went on their way.

I trekked to Greenwich Village for its Bohemian mythology in search of Dada's brilliant company. I was looking for Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, for Berenice Abbott, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Claude McKay, for Emmanuel Radnitzky, alias Man Ray. I was looking for William Carlos Williams and Jane Heap, for Francis Picabia and Arthur Craven, and the astounding character who had popped up in my Dada research, a woman I had chased to the archives of the University of Maryland, where for three days I had laboriously copied out in pencil her mostly unpublished poems: the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, née Elsa Hildegard Plötz, artist as proto-punk, fuck-you riot, who struck poses with birdcages on her head and headlights at her hips and wrote poems like howls or burps that came from deep in the diaphragm.

"No one asks for these papers," the archivist told me before she hauled out the boxes. I'm No One then, I thought. The Baroness's papers arrived in Maryland in 1970 because Djuna Barnes, author of the intoxicating novel Nightwood, had saved her dead friend's letters and manuscripts and drawings and stored them in her New York apartment. When the university acquired the Barnes papers, the Baroness came along for the ride. Hour after hour, I sat with Elsa's yellowing papers, lined and unlined, studying one draft after another of a single poem until I became confused and my eyes hurt. After the day was over, I sat on my bed in my room at the Holiday Inn to read over what I had recorded and to feel the percussive jolts and jerks of the Baroness rock my body. She lived in the pages I took with me to New York, but there was no trace of her downtown. She wasn't even a ghost. There was nothing left of her in the narrow, off-kilter byways of the Village.

Excerpted from Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt. Copyright © 2019 by Siri Hustvedt. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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