Featured Review: The Observer’s Sally Vickers places Hustvedt “in the vanguard of contemporary essayists.”
Living, Thinking, Looking, by Siri Hustvedt
by Sally Vickers, The Observer
Siri Hustvedt is best known as a novelist and her novels have received a deserved acclaim. But to my mind, she is even more to be admired as an essayist (in this regard I feel that she resembles Virginia Woolf) where her ideas can enjoy the kind of intellectual expansion that a good novelist must disdain.
This collection is divided into the three subjects of the title and while there are many internal resonances between the sections, the title’s clarity gives a flavour of the whole collection’s tone. For while there is nothing simple about Hustvedt’s subject matter – it ranges from migraine to Goya via existential philosophy and psychoanalysis – there is something refreshingly straightforward about her style. It has the confidence born of complex but well digested thoughts and thus lacks the tendency to obfuscate that is the hallmark of the inferior thinker’s style.
In “Living” we learn a good deal about the author – all of it fascinating and (old-fashioned word but apt) edifying. She is a lifelong migraine sufferer – both anxiety and joy can trigger the complaint; she also suffers from occasional bouts of insomnia; she knows her Freud and quotes him creatively but in psychoanalytic terms is more in tune with the great child analyst DW Winnicott; and (praise God) she doesn’t believe in eschewing maternal instinct and “training” babies to sleep by depriving them of vital attention.
Hustvedt was once, in her own words (borrowed from the poet George Oppen), a “righteous little girl”. This is telling, as anyone who can say that of themselves has long since given righteousness the elbow. The quote comes from a particularly moving essay about her father and fathering, which, as she points out, also includes considerations of mothering, as well as wider considerations of gender. She describes her response to hearing first of Joan of Arc from an intense male teacher – “Not only did Joan collapse the hard lines of sexual difference but she came to me through a man who genuinely believed in my abilities, a father figure”. The piece concludes with an account of another “collapse” – that of the distance from her father that existed for most of her adult life.