I recently saw Siri Hustvedt in Smock Alley Theatre during Dublin Writers Festival. I am in awe of the woman. Intellect seeps out of her pores. What amazes me is how lightly she carries it. Her breadth of knowledge doesn't weigh her down with pretentiousness. She spoke of the complex theories and ideas wrapped up in her new book "The Blazing World". Her eloquence is an inspiration. I've started the beautifully written book but already I've had to stop to research books and artists she's referenced. I managed to track down "On the problem of empathy" by Edith Stein (another amazing woman, a Jewish philosopher who changed to Catholicism and later died in Auschwitz, Phenomenology was her modus operandi.). Although I'll be saving it for another day. I love how this isn't just a book to be consumed but that it gets me reaching out into a spiders web of another book, after another book, after another. I can't recommend it highly enough and I'm not even half way into it.
Here she is being fabulous in a recent short interview from The Guardian.
Siri Hustvedt is the internationally bestselling author of What I Loved, The Summer Without Men and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl. Her latest novel, The Blazing World, is a brilliant, provocative novel about Harriet Burden, an artist who, after years of being ignored, conducts an experiment: she conceals her identity behind three male fronts in three solo exhibitions.
What's the message here? Does the world hate women? Or do women need to try harder?
I really do not want to use the word "message". This is a much more complex story. Harry – the artist Harriet Burden – is right that there is a "masculine enhancement effect". The arts are often thought of as "sort of feminine" and science as masculine. These divisions are underlying our perceptions. There are a number of other positions and perspectives that are meant to complicate the reader's understanding of this story. There is no message. There is nothing simple about this. The act of reading the book mirrors the content of the book. It is meant to be a game and a puzzle. You can't think of Harry's story as simply a feminist parable. Even though had she been a man her work would have got more recognition.
Where did the idea for Harriet come from? Could it happen in real life?
There have been art hoaxes and they're mentioned in the book. I suppose it could happen. But the kernel of the idea was a woman hiding behind male masks as an experiment. I wanted a book that felt refracted. So you have this intimate, bold voice from the notebooks [Harry's diaries] but all these people commenting on the same story. Which, of course, changes the story.
What made you choose the polyphonic structure?
I knew it was going to be many voices. Part of it came out of a desire that I always want to do something I haven't done before. I began to think of this as my "multiple personality disorder book" because I had to have all these different voices and inhabit them. There is a lot of unconsciousness involved in summoning those voices and sometimes they surprise you. It's not a situation of absolute control.
The art world was the backdrop for What I Loved. Why return to it?
I continue to write essays about art. The visual is always part of my work and it gives me immense pleasure to make up the words of art and create them verbally rather than build them.
Do you consider that your own work is ever judged a certain way because you are a woman? (A German reviewer once said that he "knew" her first novel, The Blindfold, was written by Hustvedt's husband, novelist Paul Auster.)
This is extremely difficult to answer. This is why sexism can become so riddled. Many writers will tell you they think women writers are treated differently. I get asked: "What advice do you have for young women writers?" I answer: "Would you ever ask a male writer, 'What advice do you have for young male writers?'" Women are in an unequal position and so giving that advice makes sense. But really these are unconscious forms of sexism.
When did you first know you were a writer?
The fantasy arrived when I was 13. I was in Reykjavik for a summer and it never got dark. There was a whole library of English books and I was a great reader. I suddenly had access to books that were too hard for me before. Lots of Dickens. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen. I couldn't stop. I read the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. I read some Mark Twain. While reading David Copperfield in the middle of the night – probably because of the light I had insomnia for the first time – I looked out of the window and thought, "If this is what books can do, this is what I want to do." I published my first poem in The Paris Review in 1980.
What's your favourite waste of time?
If I have open time and I'm in Manhattan, I'll just walk to wherever I'm going, even if I could get there faster on the subway. I just love walking the streets of New York.