“be but in tune with yourself” – Rhythm, Feminism and the City

… in Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future

We sway to the tunes of others, don’t we?


„an eager New York flâneuse … a 21-st century Virginia Woolf“ (Rumens, Literary Review)
„… male entitlement emerges as the most insistent motif …“ (Evans, Observer)

As the extensive quotations in its front matter show, critics of Siri Hustvedt’s novel Memories of the Future[1] have zoomed in enthusiastically on some of its major topics: art, feminism, sexism, flânerie, questions of growing up, getting old, of memories, identities, and imagination. The novel certainly is an ingenious exploration of all that. On top of it, however, Memories of the Future is a book of rhythms and of the city as a place for an (idior)rhythmic life. 

The novel evolves around the multilayered network of the stories we tell about ourselves, our former and present and future selves. It tickles, strains and caresses the diffuse borders where the elusive transition from fiction to memory and back takes place. It performs the intricate task that is ours whenever we want to tell a story: setting a narrative pace.


The frame narrator of the story stays nameless, she is „I“, „the old writer“ (p. 303). Her life has some striking similarities with the author’s biography, but that does not make her Siri Hustvedt (S.H.?), as every undergrad in literary studies would be fast to point out (or does it?). The old writer still lives in the city – the city: New York, the place she moved to in the late seventies and where she still lives, many years later, when she re-discovers her diary from this first year in the city. 

She finds this diary stacked away in a box, when her mother relocates to a single room in the assisted-living wing of the retirement complex she has already lived in for the past decade. Her mother turns increasingly forgetful, so their conversations fleet from random observations about details of their immediate present to stories about the past. Fragments of these conversations punctuate the old writer’s memories of her first year in the city.

From the diary, the voice of the younger writer speaks to us directly. Her entries often open with “Dear Page”, a witty joke the old writer looks back on with some self-mockery. She finds that she does not always recognize the voice „that is at once mine and not quite mine anymore“ (p. 11). Some of the entries are signed by S. or S.H. This protagonist of the diary-stories, its „I“, is only ever referred to (by her contemporaries as well as by the old writer) as Minnesota, a nickname given to her by Whitney, her first friend in the city.

The diary entries recount Minnesota’s daily life in New York as an aspiring writer: her struggles to earn money, her friendship to the group of “Dear Ones” (Whitney, Jacob, Gus, Fanny), her hurts and fallouts, her eventual acquaintance with her mysterious neighbour whom she comes to know as Lucy and Lucy’s esoteric circle of friends. Interspersed with those entries are excerpts from the untitled detective novel (let us call it: The Adventures of Ian and Isadora) she set out to write in those months. 

The narrative has many layers, many characters, many timelines. Somewhere along the lines, Memories of the Future becomes a story of a young woman, living and writing in her tiny apartment in Manhattan; an older woman, still living and writing in New York; and all the women she has been or imagined to be, trying to align their individual pace of life and writing with that of others.

City Rhythms

Years ago I left the wide, flat fields of rural Minnesota for the island of Manhattan to find the hero of my first novel. When I arrived in August of 1978, he was not a character so much as a rhythmic possibility, an embryonic creature of my imagination, which I felt as a series of metrical beats that quickened and slowed with my steps as I navigated the streets of the city. … I didn’t know then what I know now: As I wrote, I was also being written. ... My unformed hero and I were headed for a place that was little more than a gleaming fiction: the future. (1)

For the narrator – and for the author, as many of her interviews show[2] – writing is an act of rhythm. Fiction and the city emerge together in the act of walking: 

And I have been writing, too, for decades now, and, as I write, I walk because writing is the perambulation of narration, and it has taken me into the streets of the city and out onto country roads where I tread again on the ground of my childhood. (117)

The city, however, necessitates a special kind of rhythm. It makes you want to lose yourself in the push and pull of its masses, follow its paved streets and stay inside its channels made out of walls and bricks, it makes you avoid certain gazes and encounters while seeking out others. All the while, it challenges you to create and, more so, perform your own persona, to find your individual refuges, choose and discard your models and preferences at a dizzying speed. This is also how the old writer remembers her first year in New York: 

I am still in New York, but the city I lived in then is not the city I inhabit now. … And the streets have lost their menace, that ubiquitous if invisible threat that violence might erupt at any instant and that a defensive posture and determined walk were not optional but necessary. In other parts of the city in 1978, one could adopt the ambling gait of the flaneur, but not here. Within a week, my senses had gained an acuity they had never needed before. I was ever alert to the sudden creak or whine or crack, to the abrupt gesture, unsteady walk, or leering expression of an approaching stranger, to an indefinable odor of something-not-quite-right that wafted here and there and made me hasten my steps or dodge into a bodega or Korean grocery. (10)

Living in the city is the constant struggle between orchestrating your own movements and falling into step with others. For Memories of the Future, New York is not only scenery, the reflections on how the city changed during those decades are not merely additive padding, intended to give the story some sort of metropolitan glow; on the contrary, New York as a city is part of the life unfolding there and the narrative thereof. New York is the metropolis, the place of living together, and as every city it is also the site of female confinement as well as emancipation.[3]

So, the topic that looms large at the centre of the novel (and is constantly crowding in from its margins) is what Roland Barthes calls the phantasm of idiorrhythmy, the dream of an idiorrhythmic life: how to live your life in your own rhythm while still being part of a group. 

Rhythmos, for Barthes, is the individual pace of living, the pace of a subject. Rhythm, by contrast, is always power, always violence, it is being subjected to a rhythmic pattern that is not yours. Idiorrhythmy, then, is „a means of safeguarding rhuthmos that is to say a flexible, free, mobile rhythm; a transitory, fleeting form, but a form nonetheless.“[4]

It is not by chance, then, that both the younger and the older writer repeatedly quote from Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, this most idiorrhythmic and unruly of the early novels when it comes to narrative time: “To write a book is for all the world like humming a song – be but in tune with yourself, Madam, ’tis no matter how high or low you take it.”[5]

A Room of One’s Own

What Mount Athos is to Barthes[6] New York is to S.H.: the setting necessary for the phantasm of idiorrhythmy to spring. It is the loose organization or, rather, a space of constellations[7] of encounters and temporarily shared experiences. The idiorrhythmic subject, however, also needs a material place of inner refuge, an autonomous, functional structure, a personal space that – without closing you off – provides the enclosure that the city by definition lacks:[8] “Enclosed personal space: kellioncella: foundation of idiorrhythmy,[9] whereas the city is “a collective swell of movement.”[10]

Having a room of one’s own, as Virignia Woolf once famously demanded, is crucial for writing, for establishing and safeguarding idiorrhythmy in the community constituted by the city. So, apartment 2B becomes the young writer’s hermit’s cell, complementary and counterpoint to her roaming the streets. 

A dark room with a kitchenette, an even darker bedroom, a tiny black-and-white-tiled bathroom, and a closet with a bulging plaster ceiling at 309 West 109th Street cost me two hundred and ten dollars a month. It was a grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building, and had I been just a little different, a bit more worldly or a touch less well read, its sour green paint and its views of two dirty brick walls in the stinking summer heat would have wilted me and my ambitions, but the degree of difference that was required, however infinitesimal, did not exist at the time. Ugly was beautiful. (2)

The young writer’s room is also where she listens to the ramblings of her neighbour whom she later gets to know as Lucy. Those fragments of mysterious soliloquies are proclamations of a bone-deep sadness and sometimes desperate anger (“I’m sad,” I can’t breath! And Lindy’s dead. The window. I see the fall”). They inspire a myriad of stories, of possible explanations, of suspicions of what Lucy’s past might be. The young girl from rural Minnesota even gets her parents to send her a stethoscope. With it, she listens at the walls even more closely, and starts writing down what she hears. Some of what she hears, some of what she feels while hearing, also finds its way into the story she is writing, sitting at her desk in her tiny apartment in the Upper West Side.

But then, the permeability of walls is never one-sided only. Sounds and the stories that come with them carry through in both directions. A room of one’s own, even one with a lock, can be under threat. One night in early May a man that the young writer has met at a party accompanies her home and forces his way in into this safe space that was supposed to be her own. Now it is her neighbour listening in on what is going on in apartment 2B that intervenes.   

This event throws Minnesota off course, it subjects her, for some time and maybe in hindsight for longer than she realized, to an unstable rhythm of experiences that cannot be turned into stories: 

But for seven nights in a row, she will wake in terror after a dream. It is always the same dream with no images, just the explosive sensations of her head against a hard surface and no wind inside her, and a malevolent presence moving toward her. … The dream lasts a week and then it disappears. Years pass, and one night, it returns. Years go by again, and she dreams the terrible dream for a second time and then after more years, it strikes again. Three times. As far as she can tell, there is no rhyme or reason for this revenant. The ghost’s meaning lies in what she can’t know, buried in the speechless truths of her body that have no one to narrate them. (172–173)
Again and again, I dissected the evening, its scenes, its dialogue, its violence, and again and again I was struck by my unconscionable helplessness and cowardice. And here is an irony: Just as I had lost control of the story with Jeffrey during the hours in question, I lost control of my thoughts about the hours in question. I did not want to think about the attack. The problem was the attack would not stop thinking about me. (184)

Dire as the incident is, however, it brings another circle of friends in Minnesota’s life: Lucy, Patty, and Moth (“the Three Lucky Ladies of the Broom”). The self-proclaimed witches from Manhattan’s West Side start inviting her to their dinner parties, involving her in their rituals of a philosophy of nature and womanhood. Witchcraft, as Minnesota deduces, is a way of therapy for them, of coping with the pains and pangs of the past and present. 

It is then that Lucy starts sharing her story with Minnesota. It is a story of domestic violence and abuse, of mental illness and death. Gradually, in Memories of the Future this story becomes interwoven with the web of narrative the Dear Ones, Minnesota’s younger circle of friends, have already made up about her neighbour Lucy. It, too, becomes part of the novel Minnesota herself is writing – and stopped writing after the night of May 7.

Minnesota is looking for a story, but it is not among the stories she has been writing. Sometimes her characters meander into the rooms and streets and byways where the larger story is taking place, but her view is too pinched to see the city as a whole. A narrator whispers in her ear. The young woman needs a key. Remember that. She will get a knife, but what she needs is a key. (213)

Keys are an omnipresent topic for Minnesota. She is looking for the key to free her writerly inspiration, to open the flow of her story, to unlock the mystery of her characters that seem to act on their own intentions rather than on their author’s directive. Meanwhile, Lucy, Patty, and Moth are searching for the key to an archaic, universal truth or, simply, to the universe. Minnesota is equally repelled as she is fascinated by their theories. It is Patty, however, who encourages the young writer to make use of her gifts and, most importantly, make use of the anger she feels over the degradation experienced at the hands of men.[11] This encouragement is a weapon, maybe an even stronger one than the pocket knife her friend Fanny sends her shortly afterwards: the knife that becomes her steady companion and is known as the Baroness.[12]

Power Struggles

“The demand for idiorrhythmy is always made in opposition to power,” says Barthes.[13]

The struggle for idiorrhythmy, as we see, is one that is part of the novel’s discourse, not least where it speaks about walking the city. Its recurring emphasis has a subversive force for the narrative rhythm set by the novel itself. This rhythm, however, is likely not by chance ‘fleeting’ and ‘flexible’ due to its collage-like character. Not surprisingly, this idiorrhythmy of the discourse and idiorrhythmy as a topic of discourse both manifest most clearly where the narrative flux forcefully, almost violently breaks through the borders between the novel we read and the other novel that is being written within it.  

Minnesota’s unfinished novel follows Ian and Isadora (older sister of three other ‘Doras’: Theodora, Andora, and just plain Dora), two young, self-proclaimed detectives investigating a death in town. Ian has two desires: living up to the deductive skills of his great model, Sherlock Holmes (S.H.), and Isadora. The problem for Isadora, however, is that she can always only be Dr. Watson to Ian’s S.H.:

Our heroine was lying on her bed in her room studying a crack in its plaster ceiling when she wondered if she wanted to assume the Sherlock Holmes role instead, if she wanted to play that cold superior mask. Watson was the doctor and the writer, after all. Without Watson there would be no Holmes stories. And, as for the love question, wasn’t she, Isadora, swoonish for Kurt? Wasn’t Ian swoonish for her? She was pondering these weighty questions when the second-floor telephone in the Simon residence rang, and she walked into the hallway to answer it. It was Ian. “My dear Watson,“ he said, “I require your presence immediately.“ (83)

Watson, so Isadora assumes, equals the “inferior helpmeet” and the woman in the adventures of Holmes and Watson, who – in her interpretation – act as if they were parties to a love story. However, it is not that Dr. Watson’s part is not a great role to play. The problem, it seems, is that no one ever stopped to ask if Isadora actually wanted to assume this particular role or if she, maybe, rather wanted to be S.H., too. 

This episode in the unpublished novel crystallizes the experience of male belittlement that is one of the primary links of the figures (the S.H., plural) of the narrative through its different levels. It reminds the old writer of her childhood conversations with her father, a doctor, who, confronted with his daughter’s interest in medicine, was fast to assure her she would make a great nurse. It echoes the younger writer’s experience with what is nowadays called mansplaining: her dread about raising her voice over the voices of men at the dinner table – “I don’t suppose you have anything to add to this venerable philosophical debate, my dear?” (234). 

The way young Minnesota recorded this particular evening in her diary, she did have quite a lot to say about the question of the mind’s autonomy, Descartes’s erroneous cogito, and the social dependency of the mind on the body and the body and mind of others. She remembers feeling like something broke loose inside of her. She is not sure if she ended up shouting. However, she finishes her “performance” (her words, not mine) by fainting.


Memory is a tricky thing. As in life, in novels not everyone sticks to their ascribed role. It is not always easy to say who the standard hero (SH!) and who the villain of a story is, not even for the writer. Or not even when it is your own story, as we have seen. When it comes to Lucy’s story, each of Minnesota’s Dear Ones had their own explanation.

But then, neither Lucy nor her son was a trustworthy narrator. Lucy was unstable, and her son may have been a pathological liar. Each of the Dear Ones had an interpretation of the Lucy narrative, each correct in its way. [...] Together the interpretations create far more meaning than any one of them alone. I, the old writer, have spent years studying the clouds that blur the neat lines we like to draw between one thing and another. I have immersed myself in ambiguities. The winds blow and the sky changes and the waters rise and interpretations blend one into the other. (303)

Sometimes, in narrative, the I that narrates, and the I that is narrated conflate.[14] And as in fiction, time does not always run forward in memory: its flow is not always linear, its ontology is not always one of things (already) happened. That is why some of our memories are memories of the future. 

“In memory,“ she said, “there’s no ahead and no behind really, is there? Memory wells up in the now, in vertical time. And remembered time, as you know, is shot through with imagination. Who am I, after all?“ She opens a drawer in the desk and pulls out a fat volume. “You forgot this,“ she said. “It was never returned to the New York Public Library.“ She slides it across the desk. I recognize the book: The Female Quixote; or The Adventures of Arabella by Charlotte Lennox. 
“I was attracted to the title,“ I said. “And the century–the eighteenth.“
My character grins. “Let’s take a walk. I’ll accompany you to the corner.“
We take the elevator to the ground floor and when we step outside it is June 1, 1979, and Morningside Heights is shabby, shabby, shabby. She walks down to 109th Street with me, and I ask her, “You’re not the narrator, are you?“
“Of this story, you mean?“
I nod.
“Good God, no. What gave you that idea? I thought it was you.“
“Well,” I said. “Sometimes I think I am and then at other times I have my doubts.“ (261–262)

In the end, we are all unreliable narrators. Even more so when it comes to narrating our own past. And we are all readers whose interpretation is as good as any other. All we can do, while strolling through the city and roaming through our memories, is to tell our stories in our own rhythm. After all, narrative might be the only place we ever reach the ideal of idiorrhythmy, or so, at least, Roland Barthes believes.

Doors have been opening and closing and memories have been coming and going and would-be heroes have left the story one after the other. […] We are still following several persons who may or may not have keys to the story. When I listen, I can hear their footsteps in the streets of the city I imagine as I write and you read. 

To write a book is for all the world like humming a song or whistling a tune or striding down the street, skipping a little, and then breaking into a run before returning to a saunter. The most important thing of all is to keep time. (294–295)

[1] Siri Hustvedt, Memories of the Future, Sceptre Books, 2020. Featured image by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash.

[2] See e.g. https://youtu.be/a8K3aDUWJi8?t=472 (min. 7:52ss., last access: 23 September 2021): „Which is why it’s often rather difficult for writers for example to answer the question that sometimes comes up, you know, where do your ideas come from, right, because, well, we don’t really know, but I have proposed, and I think that links importantly to psychoanalysis, is that when I’m writing the story that I’m making does not have to relate to actual experiences that I’ve had, literal experiences, but it has to be emotionally true, and it has to be in the right … rhythmic formation – I mean I can always feel the beats of the prose, when they’re wrong they have to get changed and that every work has a rhythmic form.“

[3] For a historical and contemporary contextualization of this statement read, e.g., Leslie Kern, Feminist City. Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, Durnell Marston, 2020. 

[4]  Roland Barthes, How to Live Together. Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, translated by Kate Briggs, Columbia University Press, 2013, p. 35.

[5] Hustvedt, Memories of the Future, p. 21.

[6] “Let’s be clear that a fantasy requires a setting (a scenario) and therefore a place. Athos (where I’ve never been) conjures a mix of images: the Mediterranean, the terrace, the mountain (in the fantasy, we erase; in this case, the dirtiness, the faith).” Barthes, How to Live Together, p. 7. The place of phantasms (french fantasme, here translated as fantasy) are real places so much as they are imaginary places, cf. Hustvedt, Memories of the Future, p. 4: “And so, I arrive in the city I have seen in films, have read about in books, which is New York City but also other cities, Paris and London and St. Petersburg, the city of the hero’s fortunes and misfortunes, a real city that is also an imaginary city.”

[7] Barthes, How to Live Together, p. 51: “Different groups spread around an uninhabited centre = the very principle of idiorrhythmic organizations (I’d like a less voluntarist term: constellations?).“ 

[8] Barthes, How to Live Together, p. 58: “The function of idiorrhythmy is not to protect a “purity,” that is to say an identity. Its arrangement in spatial terms: not concentration, but dispersion, spacing.”

[9] Barthes, How to Live Together, p. 49.

[10] Hustvedt, Memories of the Future, p. 5.

[11] Hustvedt, Memories of the Future, p. 241: „And remember this: the world loves powerful men and hates powerful women. I know. Believe me, I know.“

[12] This knife is bound up tightly with another female figure that haunts the novel: Baroness Elsa von Freitag-Loringhoven, whose unpublished poems Minnesota studies and whose suppressed actual creatorship of the famous urinal that is said to be Marcel Duchamp’s work is a major concern of our writer, the young one as well as the old one. 

[13] Barthes, How to Live Together, p. 35.

[14] Hustvedt, Memories of the Future, p. 29: “In our plain old human world, the young woman who lifts her eyes when she hears the door open the Hungarian Pastry Shop in September 1978 becomes the aging woman who sits here now in September 2016 in her study in a house in Brooklyn and types the sentence you are reading in your own present, one I cannot identify. But over there in Minkowski spacetime, the still girlish “I” and the much older “I” coexist, and in that startling 4D reality, the two of us can theoretically find each other and shake hands or converse together because in the block-universe time doesn’t flow or dribble or leak, and it makes no difference whether you travel into the past or into the future.“ 

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