Siri Hustvedt: The mysteries of reading

Siri Hustvedt: The mysteries of reading

“You can do just about anything in an essay. You can tell stories, you can make arguments. It’s a very elastic form”. My interview with Siri Hustvedt is brief, but feels similarly elastic as she roams fluently across a diverse range of topics in the space of only 15 minutes, providing an apt sampler of her latest book.

Living, Thinking, Looking is a catholic collection of essays in which Hustvedt explores in turn her own life; memory, emotion and imagination; and visual art.

Hustvedt is over from her home in Brooklyn on a short author tour to promote the book. Fresh from giving the 2012 Southbank Centre Lecture the previous evening, she is in a car heading to the Latitude Festival in Suffolk when we chat. Her headlining “in conversation” event is designed to give literary gravitas to the Latitude Festival mix.

The thirty or so essays in Living, Thinking, Looking vary in tone from the personal and anecdotal to the more coolly analytical, and range over such apparently miscellaneous subjects as Hustvedt’s struggles with insomnia and migraine; what she sees – or rather doesn’t see – when she looks in the mirror; the power of cut flowers; the nature of Scandinavia (Hustvedt was born in Minnesota to a Norwegian mother and a Norwegian-American father); Freud, old photographs, and the work of visual artists, including Goya.

As well as essays, other works of non-fiction and poetry, Hustvedt has written five novels, perhaps the best known of which is What I Loved. “Writing fiction is”, she writes in Living, Thinking, Looking “like remembering what never happened”. What does she mean? “The title of my Southbank Lecture was 'Why one story and not another?'. When you write fiction, there are no restrictions. You can write anything. So the actual stories we choose to write must come from subliminal or unconscious material inside ourselves. Some form of emotional, internal truth directs every writer. Of course we are influenced by the books we’ve read, and by people: the ones we’ve loved, the ones we’ve hated. But fiction must ultimately be directed by feeling. When you begin as a writer, a lot of your material comes from outside. Every writer has external influences, but eventually these have to go underground, so that you can start writing from the inside out”.

Hustvedt is fascinating on the mysteries of reading too: that alchemic process by which we convert little black marks into thoughts and experiences, emotions and whole lives. Despite her thorough knowledge of current neuroscience, Hustvedt points out that we still don’t really understand how the brain mines books; how the contents of a printed page integrate themselves with that “large, moist organism in your head”.

In in her Introduction, Hustvedt says that she has come to believe that “no single theoretical model can contain the complexity of human reality”.  How did she come to this conclusion? “I’ve been reading in lots of different fields for years and I’ve realised that in our culture, people understand more and more about less and less. We have vast amounts of data at our fingertips in ever narrower fields. So it’s even more true now that no-one can know everything. And therefore vital for people in different fields to talk to one other. If you confine yourself to a single field, you squeeze the reality out of experience”.

In the tradition of Montaigne, Hustvedt routinely uses the first person to explore a subject in a rigorous, yet highly personal way in her essays. “Montaigne invented the form of the personal essay. He talks about himself, but always with the aim of making a point. I try to do the same thing, using my own individual experience to make broader points about what it means to be a human being."

What the essays in Living, Thinking, Looking have in common is their rigorous desire to explore this question of what it is to be human. I challenge Hustvedt to put it into the proverbial nutshell. “Being human is not a static state. We are always becoming. But we also repeat ourselves. We change all the time, but we also function in patterns. We couldn’t live if we didn’t somehow order our lives”.

What does she strive to do in all her writing? “I have an obsession with trying to articulate material that is very difficult to articulate. I try to get close to those subliminal places where language doesn’t work”. She laughs. “I try to articulate the inarticulable”.

In Living, Thinking, Looking, Hustvedt describes herself as “an outsider, an unaffiliated intellectual roamer who follows her nose”. Where will she follow it next? “I’m working on a novel which I should finish by the end of the year, and I’m continuing to read lots of fiction, science and philosophy”.

Hustvedt is also increasingly in demand to give lectures in different disciplines all over the world. October will find her in Ohio at a neuroscience conference, and in May next year, she’ll be in Copenhagen to deliver a lecture on the occasion of the bi-centenary of the birth of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. “So my roaming will continue. At a clip”.

Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt is published by Sceptre.

Photo credits: Marion Ettlinger and Latitude Festival