Siri Hustvedt

Yonder: Essays

For Ester Vegan Hustvedt and Lloyd Hustvedt

Yonder

1

My father once asked me if I knew where yonder was. I said I thought yonder was another word for there. He smiled and said, “No, yonder is between here and there.” This little story has stayed with me for years as an example of linguistic magic: it identified a new space — a middle region that was neither here nor there — a place that simply didn’t exist for me until it was given a name. During my father’s brief explanation of the meaning of yonder, and every time I’ve thought of it since, a landscape appears in my mind: I am standing at the crest of a small hill looking down into an open valley where there is a single tree, and beyond it lies the horizon defined by a series of low mountains or hills. This dull but serviceable image returns every time I think of yonder, one of those wonderful words I later discovered linguists call “shifters”—words distinct from others because they are animated by the speaker and move accordingly. In linguistic terms this means that you can never really find yourself yonder. Once you arrive at yonder tree, it becomes here and recedes forever into that imaginary horizon. Words that wobble attract me. The fact that here and there slide and slip depending on where I am is somehow poignant to me, revealing both the tenuous relation between words and things and the miraculous flexibility of language.

The truth is that what fascinates me is not so much being in a place as not being there: how places live in the mind once you have left them, how they are imagined before you arrive, or how they are seemingly called out of nothing to illustrate a thought or story like my tree down yonder. These mental spaces map our inner lives more fully than any “real” map, delineating the borders of here and there that also shape what we see in the present. My private geography, like most peoples’, excludes huge portions of the world. I have my own version of the famous Saul Steinberg map of the United States that shows a towering Manhattan; a shrunken, nearly invisible Midwest, South, and West; and ends in a more prominent California featuring Los Angeles. There have been only three important places in my life: Northfield, Minnesota, where I was born and grew up with my parents and three younger sisters; Norway, birthplace of my mother and my father’s grandparents; and New York City, where I have now lived for the past seventeen years.

When I was a child, the map consisted of two regions only: Minnesota and Norway, my here and my there. And although each remained distinct from the other — Norway was far away across the ocean and Minnesota was immediate, visible, and articulated into the thousands of subdivisions that make up everyday geography — the two places intermingled in language. I spoke Norwegian before I spoke English. Literally my mother’s tongue, Norwegian remains for me a language of childhood, of affection, of food, and of songs. I often feel its rhythms beneath my English thoughts and prose, and sometimes its vocabulary invades both. I spoke Norwegian first, because my maternal grandmother came to stay in Northfield before I had my first birthday and lived with us for nine months; but after she returned home, I began learning English and forgot Norwegian. It came back to me when I traveled with my mother and sister to Norway in 1959. During those months in Norway, when I was four years old and my sister Liv was only two and a half, we forgot English. When we found ourselves back in Minnesota, we remembered English and promptly forgot Norwegian again. Although the language went dormant for us, it lived on in our house. My parents often spoke Norwegian to each other, and there were words Liv and I and Astrid and Ingrid used habitually and supposed were English words but were not. For example, the Norwegian words for bib, sausage, peeing, and butt all submerged their English equivalents. Liv and I remember using these words with friends and how surprised we were to see their befuddled faces. The paraphernalia of infancy, of food, and inevitably the language of the toilet were so connected to our mother that they existed only in Norwegian. When I was twelve, my father, a professor of Norwegian language and literature, took a sabbatical year in Bergen, and Norwegian came back to me in a kind of flash. After that, it stuck. The speed with which we four sisters transferred our lives into Norwegian is nothing short of remarkable. During that year we played, thought, and dreamed in Norwegian.

I returned to Norway in 1972 and attended gymnasium in Bergen for a year. That time my family was not with me. I lived with my aunt and uncle outside the city and took the bus to school. Sometime during the initial weeks of my stay, I had a dream. I cannot remember its content, but the dream took place in Norwegian with English subtitles. I will always think of that dream as limbo. Its cinematic code expressed precisely my place between two cultures and two languages. But soon the metaphorical subtitles of my life disappeared, and I immersed myself in the dream’s “original” language. It has now been twenty-three years since I really lived in Norwegian. It surprises even me that less than three of my forty years were actually spent in Norway and that nearly every minute of that time was lived in Bergen. I speak Norwegian with such a broad Bergen dialect that my parents find it comical. That dialect is the real legacy of my years in Bergen, the imprint of an experience that will not leave me. Chances are even senility won’t rob me of it, since the old and feebleminded often return to the language of early childhood. And yet Norwegian survives in me not only as a sign of Bergen but as a sign of my parents’ house in Minnesota. It is not for nothing, after all, that when my stepson, Daniel, was a very little boy and he looked forward to going home to Minnesota with me and his father for Christmas, he would ask, “When are we going to Norway?”

If language is the most profound feature of any place, and I think it is, then perhaps my childhood history of forgetting and remembering enacts in miniature the dialectic of all immigrant experience: here and there are in a relation of constant strain that is chiefly determined by memory. My father, who is a third-generation Norwegian, speaks English with a Norwegian accent, testament to an American childhood that was lived largely in Norwegian. Although separated by an ocean, my mother and father grew up speaking the same language.

My mother was thirty years old when she came to the United States to live for good. She is now an American citizen and claims she is glad of this every time she votes. My mother’s threat to take the first plane back to Norway if Goldwater was elected remains strong in my memory, however. Norway was always there, and it was always calling. A Fulbright scholarship brought my father to the University of Oslo, where he met my mother. The details of how the two met are unknown to me. What is mythologized in some families was private in ours. My mother’s sister once used the English expression “love at first sight” to describe that encounter, but I have never felt any reason to poke my nose into what is clearly their business. Oslo may not be Paris, but it’s a lot bigger than Northfield and a lot less provincial, and when my mother traveled from one place to the other to marry my father, whose family she had never laid eyes on, she must have imagined the place that lay ahead. She must have seen in her mind a world my father had described at least in part to her, but whether that world tallied with what she actually found is another question altogether. What is certain is that she left a world behind her. As a child she lived in Mandal, the most southern city in Norway, and those years were by every account (not only my mother’s) idyllic. Her memories from the first ten years of her life, with her parents, two brothers, and a sister in a beautiful house above the city where her father was postmaster, are ones of such aching happiness that she says she sometimes kept her memories from me and my three sisters in fear that we might feel deprived in comparison. When she was ten years old, her father lost his money and his land. He had undersigned a business deal for a relative that went sour. Although he might have saved himself from ruin, my grandfather kept his word of honor and paid on that debt, which wasn’t really his, for the rest of his life. I think this event forms the greatest divide in my mother’s life. Suddenly and irrevocably, it cut her off from the home she loved and threw her into another as surely as if the earth had opened up and formed an impassable chasm between the two. The family moved to Askim, outside of Oslo, and this is why my mother’s voice carries traces of both a southern accent and an eastern one: the mingled sounds from either side of the chasm. I have never doubted the happiness of my mother’s first ten years, in Mandal. She had parents who loved her, rocks and mountains and ocean just beyond her doorstep. There were maids to lighten housework, siblings and family close by, and Christmases celebrated hard and long at home and in the house of tante Andora and onkel Andreas, people I have imagined repeatedly but seen only in photographs taken when they were too young to have been the aunt and uncle my mother knew. But it seems to me that losing paradise makes it all the more radiant, not only for my mother but, strangely enough, for me. It is an odd but emotionally resonant coincidence that every time I have been in Mandal, it doesn’t rain. Rain is the torment of all Norwegians, who seek the sun with a fervor that might look a little desperate to, say, a person from California. The truth is it rains a lot in Norway. But when my mother took us there in 1959, it was a summer of legendary sunshine, and when I was last in Mandal, for a family reunion in 1991 with my mother and sisters and my own daughter, the sun shone for days on end, and the city gleamed in the clear, perfect light of heaven.

I never knew my grandfather. He died when my mother was nineteen. There are photographs of him, one in which he stands facing a white horse with three young children on its back. He is wearing a straw hat that shades his eyes, and between his lips is a cigarette. What is most striking in the picture is his posture, proud and erect, but with another quality that is almost but not quite jaunty. It is somehow obvious that he didn’t strike a pose. He had intelligent features — his eyes especially give the impression of thought. My grandmother said he read (almost to the exclusion of anything else) church history and Kierkegaard. She adored him and never married again. I’m sure it never entered her mind to do so. When I think of my mother’s mother, I think of her voice, her gestures, and her touch. They were all soft, all refined; and, at the same time, she was freely and passionately affectionate. For some reason, I remember with tremendous clarity walking through her door, when I was twelve, with my sisters and my mother and father. It was winter and my mother had knit me a new white hat and scarf to go with my brown coat. When my grandmother greeted me, she put her hands on either side of my face and said, “You’re so beautiful in white, my darling.”

The last time I lived in Norway, I visited my grandmother every day after school. She lived in a tiny apartment that rose above a small, old graveyard in the city. She was always happy to see me. I’m afraid I was a morbidly serious adolescent that year, a girl who read Faulkner and Baldwin, Keats and Marx with equal reverence, and I must have been somewhat humorless company. But there was no one I liked being with more than her, and this may have made me livelier. We drank coffee. We talked. She loved Dickens, whom she read in Norwegian. Years after she was dead, I wrote a dissertation on Charles Dickens, and though my study of the great man would no doubt have alarmed her, I had a funny feeling that by taking on the English novelist, I was returning to my Norwegian roots.

My mormor (in Norwegian maternal and paternal lines are distinguished: mormor literally means “mother-mother”) is at the center of my real experiences of Norway, Norway as particular and daily, as one home. She was a lady in the old sense of the word, the word that corresponds to gentleman—a person who never shed her nineteenth-century heritage of gentility. I was deep in my self-righteous socialist phase, and I’ll never forget her saying to me in her soft voice, “You must be the first person in the family to march in a May Day parade.” She wore a hat and gloves every time she went out, dusted her impeccable apartment daily, including each and every picture frame that hung on the wall, and was shocked when her cleaning lady used the familiar form du when she spoke to her. I can recall her small apartment very well — the elegant blue sofa — the pictures on the wall — the shining table — the birdcage that held her parakeet Bitte Liten, a name I would translate as “the tiny one.” And I remember every object with fierce affection. Had I not loved my grandmother, and had she not loved my mother very well and loved me, those things would just be things. After Mormor died, I walked with my own mother outside our house in Minnesota, and she said to me that the strangest part of her mother’s death was that a person who had only wanted the best for her wasn’t there anymore. I recall exactly where the two of us were standing in the yard when she said it. I remember the summer weather, the slight browning of the grass from the heat, the woods at our left. It’s as if I inscribed her words into that particular landscape, and the funny thing is that they are still written there for me. Not long after that conversation, I dreamed that my grandmother was alive and spoke to me. I don’t remember what she said in the dream, but it was one of those dreams in which you are conscious that the person is dead but is suddenly alive and with you again. Although all other architectural detail is lost, I know I was sitting in a room and my grandmother walked through a door toward me. It was a threshold dream, a spatial reversal of my memory of walking through her door and her telling me I was beautiful in white. I remember how intensely happy I was to see her.

My daughter, Sophie, has always called my mother “Mormor,” and no name could be more evocative of the maternal line. Mother-mother is for me an incantation of pregnancy and birth itself, of one person coming from another, and then its repetition in time. When I was pregnant with Sophie, I felt it was the only time I had been physically plural — two in one. But of course it had happened before, when I was the one inside that first place. Uterine space is mysterious. We can’t remember its liquid reality, but we know now that the fetus hears voices. After the violence of birth (all the classes, breathing, and birth-cult nonsense in the world do not make the event nonviolent), the newborn’s recognition of his or her mother’s voice forms a bridge across that first, brutal separation.