About The Author
Siri Hustvedt was born in 1955 in Minnesota, where she grew up. She has written novels, poems, essays and short stories and her work has been translated into 29 languages. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband Paul Auster and their daughter. She has a BA in History and a PhD in English. Siri came in to Foyles in 2011 to discuss her neurological memoir, The Shaking Woman (see below).
Her latest novel, now out in paperback, The Blazing World, is set in the New York art world and centres around Harriet Burden, who, embittered by the lack of attention she has received for her work, conceals her identity behind three male fronts in three solo exhibitions. Her story is told after her death from many different perspectives, including extracts from her notebooks and articles, as well as testimonies from her children and others both closely and more distantly connected. But each account is different and the reader finds themselves entering a maze of possibilities with a dangerous psychological game at its heart. We chatted exclusively to Siri about about the challenges of writing a multi-voiced novel, the continuing bias against female genius and why it's important to relax when encountering art.
The Author At Foyles
Foyles at Charing Cross Road was proud to host the only UK event for novelist Siri Hustvedt's new memoir, The Shaking Woman. Two years ago when speaking at a memorial for her father, she experienced a violent seizure from the neck down, and has continued to suffer fits of shuddering ever since. Her new book is her account of the psychological journey to which this led. This mutual support is something she also has with her husband, of course, the novelist and screenwriter Paul Auster, an author whose writing has often been influenced by the work of one of Charcot's contemporaries, Jacques Lacan.
In some ways, her memoir continues the strong interest in psychology which has been a significant aspect of her fiction. Having edited her sister's thesis on the nineteenth century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, she found herself using many of his ideas in her last novel
Hustvedt also revealed that she suffers from a condition known as 'mirror touch synaesthesia', which causes her to feel a sympathetic sensation when viewing physical contact. She prefers to avoid violent films as such imagery causes her intense physical discomfort. But the condition is not limited to negative sensations: seeing a mother stroke her child's face induces a rather more pleasant response.
It was the subject of grief which provoked the most questions from the audience. Hustvedt dismisses the concept of closure as simplistic, saying we continue to deal with traumatic events for the rest of our lives. Grief is more of a narrative strand and 'telling stories has a integrative and therapeutic effect'. She also cited Freud's famous essay, 'Mourning and Melancholia', as major influence on her thinking.
The author revealed that she has recently finished a short novel, 'A Summer without Men', to be published either later this year or early in 2011. Her previous two novels were written from a male perspective, about which Hustvedt commented that 'you feel the power' when using a male voice, but she was now returning to women 'with a vengeance'.
The event was filmed by the BBC for an upcoming edition of The Culture Show, so anyone who missed out on a place should look out for it.
Beneath the interview is a list of titles by Siri Hustvedt currently in print in the UK. You may find other editions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page and selecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.
Questions & Answers
You have a large number of voices to keep track of. How did you manage to keep all their stories going simultaneously in your head?
Except for the editor's introduction and notes, which I did last, I wrote the book in sequence, which meant that when I returned to a character, it took a little time to recover her or his voice. I did not look back at my earlier texts, but re-found the cadences of a particular voice in myself, rather in the way an actor might who plays several roles in the same theatrical performance. I have a capacious head and keeping the stories straight was not a problem, but a joy. The book is serious, but it is also a game and a puzzle, a work of textual refractions that asks the reader to enter its maze.
Are you in sympathy with Harriet's belief that she has been overlooked because she is a woman?
Of course I am in sympathy with Harry. This may be a complicated feminist work, but it is a feminist work nevertheless. The novel itself includes many real examples of women artists who were overlooked because they were women. One of the art critics in the novel Rosemary Lerner mentions several women in the visual arts who were ignored for years and only recognized very late in their careers or after their deaths. I believe there is a masculine enhancement effect: work by men is often treated more seriously than work by women. I do not think this special treatment is on the whole either conscious or malicious, however. The prices paid for a Jeff Koons as opposed to a Louise Bourgeois are revealing. (To my mind, the latter is a far better artist.) The most expensive artwork by a man is far more expensive than the most expensive artwork by a woman. Doesn't money tell us what the culture values?
What do you think of the way Harriet went about trying to prove that her theory and ultimately get the attention she felt shedeserved?
Harry is neurotic, angry, but also highly intelligent. Her Kierkegaardian Maskings project is so complex and involves so many layers of irony that few people are in a position to unravel it, certainly not the general art public.
Despite the fact that Harry longs for acclaim and recognition, her approach is dubious. She reveals her project by donning yet another mask, this one an academic figment, Richard Brickman, who writes about her in an obscure journal and does not even wholly approve of her work or her theories. Furthermore, Harry does not think hard enough about the effects her experiment will have on her human masks. These three men can't be put on and discarded at will. Only one of them, Phinny, remains a friend. Also, Harry does not get what she wants. When she dies, she is unknown. Her fame arrives posthumously. The story of Maskings, however, is what grabs the editor, I.V. Hess's attention and becomes a significant part of her legacy as an artist. It is not Harry's cleverness alone, however, that has left its mark on the world, but the emotional impact of her works that is so strong even Sweet Autumn Pinkney, the New Age fruitcake, can feel its power.
Harriet says, 'Isn't it strange that we don't know who we are? I mean we know so little about ourselves it's shocking. We tell ourselves a story and we go along believing in it, and then, it turns out, it's the wrong story, which means we've lived the wrong life.' Do you feel this yourself? How do we guard against this, especially if stories are also the means we use to make sense of our world?
I think we are strangers to ourselves in many ways. We often devise explanations for our behavior that bear little resemblance to what is actually going on inside us. No one disputes the reality of the unconscious anymore. Even those who are violently opposed to Freud's dynamic unconscious acknowledge 'a cognitive unconscious.' The quotation you refer to comes at a moment in the novel when Harry has just come out of a psychoanalytic session and is speaking to her friend Rachel, who is an analyst herself. The drama of therapy is precisely this: finding a story that makes better sense than the one you have been telling yourself all along. This better story is not one of documentary truth. Memory is frail and shifting. The better story is one that has greater emotional resonance.
Many of the characters turn out to be easily manipulated, frail or in need of some kind of mask in order to feel 'free'. And yet it seems that Harriet's strong sense of self is, at least in part, her downfall, with one of her friends observing how much more palatable her awkward brilliance might have been in a man. Do the old stereotypes still prevail?
I'm not sure which characters you mean. Rune is a great manipulator of people. Oswald Case, Harry, Maisie, and his own sister all fall prey to one or the other of his personas. Rune plays Harry's mask, but he is also a man of masks in his own life. The other characters in the book don't strike me as easily manipulated. Harry is at once powerful and weak. This is her contradiction. She is grandiose, enormously creative, brilliant, passionate and at the same time wounded and insecure. Female genius remains far less palatable than male genius in the culture, and the stereotype is stubborn. I think it can change, but it won't be easy. I have been using the following pithy example to bring my point home. It takes place at a party. One person says to the other: 'You mean that gorgeous girl over there in the skimpy dress is working on her second post-doc at Rockefeller in molecular biology?'
There are so many imposters in this novel but perhaps the most touching in many ways is the ageing failed poet, Bruno Kleinfeld, who wakes one day to discover he had 'mislaid...that bright, curly-headed youth with prospects shining just over yonder hill.' Is this equally to do with the shock of ageing that comes to us all, do you think, as the almost inevitable failure of one's early aspirations?
Bruno's 'imposter' is actually his real self, the man who failed, the man who couldn't finish the great American poem. I love Bruno, but he gets lost in his ambition, so lost that he cannot finish his vast project. Harry's ambition is equal to Bruno's, but she is able to work. Bruno does write a memoir, and there is a hint near the end of the book that he will have at least some small success with it. Early aspirations are just that -- mere fantasies of the future. Without completed works, there is no hope that they can become anything else.
The New York art scene gets some criticism for its shallow and fickle nature. And yet you also suggest that it is impossible for any work of art to come unburdened with the 'expectations and prejudices of the viewer or reader or listener...' How does that belief affect you as a writer?
The New York art scene is no more shallow and fickle than many other 'scenes' in the arts, visual or otherwise. And, yes, I do not think it is possible to see anything purely. Irrational and unconscious forces are always shaping our perceptions of the world. Only by becoming aware of them will we be able to change them. I certainly would not claim that I am free of prejudice. Heaven knows, I have my own biases. I do work hard, however, to be as open as possible to the art that comes my way. I hope to judge it on its own terms, not on terms I have imposed upon it. I also have tried to read against myself, to immerse myself in ideas that I disagree with -- computational theory of mind, for example. By understanding the reasoning, I gain respect for the thinking and am able to hone my criticism of it. The best policy I have found in relation to all art is to relax. I remember I was so intimidated by Joyce's Ulysses at eighteen that I tied myself in knots and had no fun with it. I stopped reading. A couple of years later, I told myself to relax and just get out of it whatever I could. I loved it.