Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster discuss book addiction and literary sexism

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Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt (Rachel Krantz)
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Siri Hustvedt may be less of a household name than her husband, Paul Auster, but that’s probably because she’s busy reading.

“You once said to me, Paul, that I was addicted to books,” Hustvedt said in conversation with Auster Thursday night at Strand Books. “Paul wanted me to stop reading so much psychiatry during one period of my life. He said, 'Now you have to stop.' And I snuck in books in a brown paper bag. That’s antisocial personality disorder.”

In conversation, Hustvedt’s depth of knowledge—which spans disciplines including psychiatry, art, and neuroscience—is readily apparent. With her diverse new collection of essays entitled Living, Thinking, Looking, Hustvedt expounds on topics that range equally, from the meaning of clothing to contemporary neuropsychological theory.

“Who are you, Siri Hustvedt?” Auster asked his wife at the Thursday event to promote the new collection. “Novelist, essayist, art critic, explorer of psychoanalysis, neuroscience, medicine. How do you manage to distribute the time you devote to these activities?”

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“This is a question about curiosity,” Hustvedt replied. “And the answer is really reading.”

Of course, the answer is also writing about said reading. In Living Thinking, Looking Hustvedt seems most concerned with grappling with questions of perception and subjectivity.

“What most interests me [about art] is what I think of as an inter-subjective experience,” Hustvedt said. “In other words, an experience that happens between a spectator and a work of art. That is the only place that art comes alive. It is literally animated by this in-between area.”

“I’ve never seen a human being look at paintings longer than Siri,” Auster told the Strand Books audience proudly. He recalled a time at the Prado museum when Hustvedt examined Francisco de Goya’s painting The Third of May for hours. She stared at it for so long, in fact, that she even managed to make art history.

“I saw this foggy but present image of a—probably Goya’s face—in the canvas itself,” Hustvedt explained to the audience. “I wrote about it, and it turned out that this had never been seen before…. What’s most important isn’t that I found this face. It’s that most people—and so many people working in art, this is all they do—don’t actually look all that deeply at the paintings.”

As if to emphasize the joys of looking closely, Hustvedt read from her essay "Notes on Seeing."

“Sometimes I like to look at my husband’s face in photographs because he becomes a stranger in the pictures, an object fixed in time,” Hustvedt read. “Over many years, I have come to know him through my other senses too. The feeling of his skin, the changing smell of his body in winter…. When I look at him in a photograph, my other senses are quiet. I simply see him. And because I find him beautiful, his unmoving face excites me.”

If Auster blushed, it wasn’t noticeable. Instead, the author seemed more concerned that his wife be given the respect she deserves.

“Have you ever found it difficult to find yourself the only woman in the room?” Auster asked Hustvedt. “Or, to put it another way, talk a bit about how women are treated in the literary world.”

“If you are a male writer, it helps. I think every female novelist knows it,” Hustvedt replied. “My theory is this: the problem is that literature, poetry, the humanities—it’s already kind of ‘femmy.’ So what you want to do, if you’re a man, is counter that feminized sense.”

“What we have to begin to think about in the culture is how this idea—of women as the sexual, man as the intellect—how these very old dualisms still inform thinking, even though they are often subconscious,” Hustvedt said.

Another dualism Hustvedt seemed concerned with is objectivity versus subjectivity.

“You’ve talked often about the difference between first-person and third-person point of view,” Auster prompted.

“In the introduction to this essay collection I talk about using the first person in my essays as a philosophical position,” Hustvedt explained. “I’m using the subjective point of view for a reason.”

Hustvedt, calm and eloquent throughout the night, was firm in this point.

“The essays I write are often grounded in my own experience, and I use my experience as a way to elucidate the argument. It is never for it’s own sake.”