Few things are more excruciating for a writer than confronting the words written by her younger self. Her tone is bound to seem stilted, her thoughts alien or insignificant. Did I really think that? she wonders, aghast. Worse yet: Did I really commit it to paper? Ensure that my words would come back to shame me in the future? As Jane Austen well knew, the real pleasure in reading one’s “Juvenilia” or “Scraps” comes from measuring the distance between talent and art. At least, that is the hope.
Siri Hustvedt’s seventh novel, Memories of the Future, is a self-conscious exercise in juvenilia. The narrator, known to us only by her initials, S.H., and her nickname, Minnesota, is moving her mother from one area in a retirement home to another when she stumbles across her own journal from almost 40 years earlier. She recalls herself as she was then, a lanky blonde from Webster, Minnesota, who had left home for New York City to enroll in a graduate program in comparative literature. The year was 1978. The city was severe and inviting, alive with art, music, sex, drugs, poets, punks, panhandlers—the perfect setting for S.H.’s transformation into a novelist. “This book is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, the artist who came to New York to live and to suffer and to write her mystery,” S.H. announces, lest there be any doubt that the novel is a Künstlerroman. It proceeds to shift awkwardly between S.H.’s present-day narration and a clutter of found texts: S.H.’s journal entries from 1978 and 1979, a draft of a novel she wrote but has never finished, and delicate, undated caricatures of people ranging from Marcel Duchamp to Donald Trump.