With a mischevious smile, Inga raised her thumb and began to enumerate the guests, lifting a finger for each: "You and your mysterious Shakespeare heroine; Mamma, Sonia, me; Henry Morris, professor of American Literature, NYU, knew Max a little, recovering after painful divorce from mad Mary. He’s a wee bit stiff, but very smart. In fact, I like him a lot. We’ve had a date." Inga winked at Erik, then thrust up the thumb of her other hand to keep on counting: "My friend Leo Hertzberg…"
For a moment, I stopped paying attention to their conversation: Leo Hertzberg? So Leo is alive…
"Yet another professor, but a retired one, from art history at Columbia, lives on Greene Street, sees poorly, but he’s very interesting and extremely kind. I met him from my friend Lazlo Finkman. I’ve been reading Pascal to him every week for an hour or so, and then we have tea. His great sadness is that his only child, a boy, died when he was eleven. Matthew’s drawings are all over the apartment."
Definitely the same Leo Hertzberg. How does Inga know Lazlo? And more importantly: Is Leo all right?
I rummaged through my purse for my smallest notebook, but realized that I was only doing so to calm myself down. There was no need to make a note of this. I would not forget it.
I haven’t heard from Leo in years, and today I realized how worried I have been. I haven’t tried to contact him, because I’m not crazy: I know Leo isn’t real.
It might just be a novelist’s greatest possible achievement: to create characters so believable that the reader desperately wants to call them to make sure they’re ok and then to invite them over for wine and conversation. With What I Loved, where I first met Leo and his friends, and now with The Sorrows of an American, which makes me want to call Erik and tell him I’m lonely too, Siri Hustvedt does just that. She creates a complete, alternate world of her characters.
And so today I took a tram through Oslo and ended up in a loft in New York City, preparing for a party with Erik and his sister Inga. And my old friend Leo was on the guest list.
The first and fourth paragraph of this text were written by Siri Hustvedt in The Sorrows of an American. I have copied them, changed one word (Erik was originally I) and included them here to illustrate the experience of stepping into a novel’s alternate reality.
Related post for Norwegian readers: Review of The Sorrows of an American