SIRI Hustvedt just can’t stop amazing her readers as her novels have received a deserved acclaim. But to my mind, she is even more to be admired as an essayist where her ideas can enjoy the kind of intellectual expansion that a good novelist must be accorded.
In the novel Living, Thinking, Looking, around 30 of her essays are collected here, divided into three thematic sections: on living, consisting of pieces drawn from her own life; on thinking, a selection of more overtly intellectual musings on memory and the self; and on looking, essays about art and artists.
What drives Hustvedt, aside from “an abiding curiosity”, is the conviction that “no single theoretical model can contain the complexity of human reality”, and she roams freely across the fields of psychology, neuroscience and anthropology and literature in her explorations.
The first section of essays serve to draw the reader in to the steeper, more intellectually challenging peaks of later material. There’s a brilliant, moving exploration of the layered, often highly charged relationships between fathers and daughters and an essay on clothes which will bring both a smile and a sting of recognition to most women readers.
There’s an ambivalence here, a creative tension between the academic’s wariness of the subjectivity of anecdote and the novelist’s instinctive feel for story, which gives Hustvedt’s work its exploratory, interrogative tone and is reflected, too, in her language. The more academic of these essays can seem somewhat technical, though Hustvedt’s “deep commitment to the use of ordinary language” ensures they’re readable at least. In one of her few politically provocative essays, she laments the creation by the Bush regime of an Orwellian newspeak, a “verbal fog that is both contagious and damaging to political discourse.”