The Hustvedt essay

I remember the first time I heard of Siri Hustvedt—it was via Larry Ypil, poet extraordinaire, who’d drawn me aside one night of literature and revelry to say, “If you want to read about Eros, you have to read Siri Hustvedt.”

Nearly her entire published oeuvre later, I came to her latest collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking—picked up from a bookstore one distraught night; it felt like the Universe had consoled me—and I have emerged affirmed of my devotion to Hustvedt. The collection felt too much—bewilderingly so—like coming home. Or, perhaps more accurately, being reminded of what that familiarity felt like. The first essay, its very first line: “Desire appears as a feeling, a flicker or a bomb in the body, but it’s always a hunger for something, and it always propels us somewhere else, toward the thing that is missing.” From this nugget of rhetoric, the essay “Variations of Desire: A Mouse, a Dog, Buber, and Bovary” veers into touchstones seemingly so disparate: Siri’s sister Asti pins her childhood longings on a Mickey Mouse telephone; I am introduced to Martin Buber stroking a horse—the “immense vitality” beneath his skin as he did so; and I cross paths once more with Madame Bovary. And yet, Hustvedt makes it work.

Desire has long been Hustvedt’s forte, from her novels and threaded through her nonfiction. And the essays in this collection are so unmistakeably-to-me Hustvedtian: They’re essays in the blessedly conventional sense—the simplest route from writer to reader. Here are a host of subjects in a deeply personal voice, exceedingly intelligent, more than a little sensuous, and familiar all throughout. Desire weaves in and out of the essays—“Living,” for her musings on family life; “Thinking,” for her reflections on the making of and the appreciation of literature, the academe, as well as her disarmingly easy relationship with neuroscience; “Looking,” for her meditations on art. Again: All of them fascinatingly eloquent, and all of them unafraid to draw from Hustvedt’s own life. No shame to tell the reader that this was how she felt as she thought. This unabashedness, coupled with her goddamned intellect, never fails to send happy shivers down my spine.

The first time I read her nonfiction, via her collection A Plea for Eros, I tapped into that uncanny Hustvedt worldview-then-expression I’d enumerated above. Whilst her fiction was dense and generous, tense in its examination of desire and its fathomless rewards-and-consequences—will everybody just please read her incomparable novel What I Loved now?—her nonfiction was lucid, cerebral, but relentlessly personal. At the heels of reading Eros, I wrote:

[It’s] about all things Hustvedt… [The essays are] penetrating, eerily intelligent, just the right bit of sensuality… The pieces are reflections on a wide variety of subjects, and the personal-ness is the driving force. Yeah, that’s the word—reflections. In Hustvedt’s characteristically quiet and charged, still yet voluptuous voice that I’ve known and long loved. It’s like sitting down for a cup of coffee and listen to one of your idols ramble and rave and rant and brood and celebrate. And argue! And reason against the more mundane complexities of the universe.

[There may be more to say, but I fear I have exhausted myself. This exhaustion, I hasten to add, is not an effect of Hustvedt. I think now that, hell, perhaps I could have fared better if I wrote down my thoughts on each essay, as I went on?] In a nutshell: This book has all that, yet again, and remains faithful to what I’ve known the author to be? And that, against her previous book of essays, this one manages to exhibit Hustvedt’s broad range of Awesomeness far better? And, yes, there’s wonder in this, too: The awe that someone can be so intelligent, so well-versed in a variety of subjects and familiar with so much ephemera, so masterful with her language—and yet, bafflingly, graciously, thankfully, so generous with her insight and her life. Sigh. Consider me awestruck. Yet again.

PSA: I bought Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt at Powerbooks Greenbelt 3 for Php835.

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