Nicholas Royle is the author of five novels - including Antwerp and Saxophone Dreams - two novellas and a short story collection. He has edited 13 anthologies of short stories. In the early 1990s he ran an award-winning small press, Egerton Press, and in 2009 he started Nightjar Press, to publish individual short stories in chapbook format. Nicholas is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, and his insight into Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold, which he writes about below, was deepened considerably by discussion of the book with his seminar group there.
Nicholas Royle on The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt's first novel, The Blindfold, begins:
Sometimes even now I think I see him in the street or standing in a window or bent over a book in a coffee shop. And in that instant, before I understand that it's someone else, my lungs tighten and I lose my breath.
The novel is divided into four parts. It is set in New York City, when the 1970s were slipping into the 1980s. The narrator is Iris Vegan, a graduate student in English at Columbia University. In Part 1, two months after her desertion by boyfriend Stephen, Iris takes on some work for a writer, Herbert B Morning, describing objects he gives her and recording her whispered descriptions on to tape. Eventually, suspecting Mr Morning of the murder of a girl who died in his apartment building, she quits.
Part 2 finds Iris eight months into her relationship with Stephen. She meets Stephen's friend George, a photographer, who soon reveals an interest in Iris, photographing her and grabbing a kiss. 'Careful,' she says. 'I bite.' Stephen disappears for a while and George's favourite picture from the shoot they do together takes on a life of its own. Here and there, people tell her they've seen it. Eventually the photograph is stolen from the gallery in which it's being shown. In Part 3, Iris is in hospital suffering from migraines. It's now eight months since she and Stephen split up. Nevertheless, he turns up to visit, but can't handle it and leaves.
Part 4 is the longest part. Iris joins Professor Rose's oversubscribed seminar group on Hegel, Marx and the 19th Century Novel. At a party, a fellow student introduces her to an art critic calling himself Paris, a strange little fellow with elfin features, gelled hair and a sharp line in colourful suits. Iris becomes Professor Rose's research assistant, translating a German novella for him, Der Brutale Junge by Johann Krüger. Klaus, the 'brutal boy' in Krüger's story, acts on cruel impulses. Iris, in thrall to the gruff charms of the married Professor Rose and fast running out of money to live on, acts increasingly strangely. She goes out dressed as a man and, like Klaus, feels impelled to commit random acts of cruelty. Subtly encouraging her in this behaviour, Paris calls her from LA: 'Are you there, Klaus?' he asks. Iris spirals out of control, heading for a breakdown. Professor Rose is there to catch her, but how can that be a good thing?
The first time I read The Blindfold, I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. It's a feeling I've had many times before – haven't we all? – but never with a book. I had a strong sense of having read it before, despite being certain that I hadn't. I don't mean it seemed unoriginal or that it was a forgettable book that I might well have read before and not remembered. The sensation came upon me early in the book and not only did it not leave me, but various details in the novel strengthened the feeling as I worked my way through. I say 'worked'; it was an extremely compelling read. You progress through the narrative with very little understanding of how its parts might fit together, how the chronology is structured, but without any interruption to the flow. You read on because you want to find out how it all fits, and for many other reasons too, and if you reach the end without any clear grasp of the chronology not only does that not matter, I'm beginning to wonder if it isn't deliberate. Most of what this book is about reveals itself to you afterwards, slowly, as it settles in your mind, or perhaps as you discuss it with other readers.
Working on her description of a white glove for Mr Morning, Iris pictures a girl running her hand along a subway railing. 'The image prompted a shudder of memory.' A shudder of memory. The visceral nature of that sensation is exactly like déjà vu, which I had already begun to feel before reading that phrase for the first time. Much later, Paris challenges Iris to describe a painting, The Tempest by Giorgione. She describes the 'curious illumination' in the painting, which comes from a bolt of lightning.
"It's not real light but a kind of inner light, the light of strong memories. I can't explain it, but even while you look at that painting, you feel that it's already past, that you've already seen it. Maybe that's why it has such a powerful effect afterward. I mean, the thing itself is memory, is an afterlife, and so you're remembering a memory..."
I get the same sensation from looking at books from childhood. The Ladybird Book of British Birds and Their Nests. The illustrations have a softness, a fuzziness, like faded photographs; a lemony, rosy tint to the sky, a feathery texture to the leaves of the trees. It's tempting to think they were sharper when you first looked at them. A similar quality is ascribed by Iris to The Tempest.
But she also gives a highly detailed description of the contents of the painting, of the woman nursing an infant by a river. As Paris points out, though, her description is incomplete. She fails to mention the male figure standing on the far left gazing at the woman, for the simple reason that he is an observer and so the observer of the painting slips into his shoes. It is true that he seems to disappear when you look at the painting for the first time. The effect - like the déjà vu effect I felt upon reading The Blindfold - is uncanny and I'm convinced that these effects are not accidental. Not only is it deliberate on Hustvedt's part, I would suggest, but she has a good reason for it, too. There is intelligent design in her creation and it's connected with the hidden meaning of the book, which I am not about to reveal. I'll say only that the last words of the novel, the final phrase, are a cliché, an awful, unforgivable cliché, or so you think at first. How could she? Iris has condemned the use of cliché. When her relationship with Professor Rose hits a bad patch, she deplores the lapse into 'television conversation', the exchange of tiredly predictable dialogue. 'We feasted on the rubbish heap of dead expressions, and the gorging made us worse.' And then she goes and ends the book with an exhausted, hackneyed expression.
It has to be deliberate and it is. Confront the cliché - interrogate it, to use a horrible piece of academic language - and the true meaning of the novel will start to emerge. But don't go looking. Don't check the last page before you get there. You wouldn't, I know. Well, some of you might, but please don't. The boldness of that possible deliberate sabotage of her own novel marks out Hustvedt as a risk-taker, a writer of exquisite taste and judgement, every bit as daring as her husband Paul Auster. As soon as you finish The Blindfold, you want to go straight back to the beginning and read it again. Those are the great books, the ones that not only make you want to do that but that reward you doubly for doing so. And when you do turn back to the first page and you read that opening paragraph again, you realize, with a bewildering yet thrilling sense of disorientation, that you can't be at all certain who she's talking about. The 'him'. It could be a number of characters. Reading this novel for the first time, even if you do have a vague feeling of having done so before, is to read it blindfold. Read it a second time with the blindfold removed and you will find there's so much more to see.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]