Siri Hustvedt ablaze in Zurich

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Siri Hustvedt is a literary legend and the owner of a brilliant mind, two reasons why I had to go and see her reading in Zurich yesterday. The old Schauspielhaus theatre was packed but it was not an occasion to sit back and be entertained.

It is customary for Hustvedt to throw out a rapid succession of philosophical references and intriguing ideas so that to listen to her speak involves a certain amount of mental gymnastics.

The New York writer had some interesting things to say about memory and imagination, and their link with creativity. Visualising the future and remembering the past are an essential part of being human but imagination is required for both, she said, just as imagination is required to create art.

Because the imagination is involved in recalling experiences, what we remember is not always reliable. “Every time we retrieve a memory it is open to revision,” Hustvedt told the audience.

Before I had a chance to crumble into a heap of self-doubt, questioning every memory I hold dear, Hustvedt had moved on to talk about the fact that creativity comes from play. Not to be able to play is pathological, she said, because play is an indispensable part of our existence.

So when we’re writing we’re playing? That makes perfect sense, especially when I think of the way my youngest daughter plays, completely immersed in creating worlds and characters.

I loved Hustvedt’s description of what novelists do. “We put on masks and discover, go to places we didn’t know.” What we find can be surprising or even disturbing.

Hustvedt believes we are all strangers to ourselves and, “artists confront that strangeness more often than other people”.

The appearance in Zurich was part of a promotional tour for the German translation of Siri Hustvedt’s latest book, The Blazing World. The book tells the story of an embittered New York artist late in her career who decides to take revenge on the misogynistic art world by passing off her creations as the work of three male artists. They receive the massive acclaim that the same exhibitions would not have garnered for her but things do not go according to plan when she tries to assert her claim to the work.

Hustvedt is very eloquent in her attacks on sexism and misogyny, whose imprint can be seen all the way back to Socrates, she explained. On my way home I wondered why it meant so much to me to see such a towering female intellect in action. People like Siri Hustvedt are there to banish any lingering doubt that women might not be as brilliant as men. Because, sadly that doubt does still linger in a world so utterly in thrall to male achievement.

Not only does Hustvedt question the expectations of gender, she also finds the notion of self problematic. “We all demonstrate in our daily lives a plurality of selves.” This plurality makes it all the easier for Hustvedt to inhabit the characters she creates, as long as that happens within a safe creative space she calls the “aesthetic frame”.

As for her writing habits, Hustvedt writes every day except Sunday. She finds novels harder to write and periodically reads back over the book to make sure “the rhythm is right”. If it’s not right she’ll delete the last section. This approach is at odds with the keep-writing-never-look-back advice I’ve often read for first drafts. But the most important rule in writing fiction is to do what works for you.

Speaking of the plurality of selves, The Blazing World is told in the voices of twenty narrators, a technique that Donal Ryan also used in his breakthrough success The Spinning Heart. Coincidentally, it was while attending a reading by Ryan in Zurich Literaturhaus in April that I saw Hustvedt’s name in the summer programme (see previous post).

I’ll be keeping a close eye on their programme from now on.

Are there any Hustvedt fans out there? I read two conflicting reviews of The Blazing World, published in May last year. The Guardian review was largely positive but the Financial Times ripped the book to shreds. So far I’ve only read two of Hustvedt’s five novels – What I Loved and The Summer Without Men, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

5 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt ablaze in Zurich

  1. You seem to have a great literary salon in Zürich. I’ve never seen Hustvedt in action, but I absolutely agree with what she’s said here about memory, about creative play and the plurality of selves. However, I’m not quite sure I enjoy how she’s translated these ideas into fiction. I’ve read only one of her novels and don’t remember anything about it! And I have another waiting on the shelf that keeps being bypassed. I guess I’m a bit of an intellectual in my head but not on the page – or perhaps I just need to give her another try.

    1. I’ve just got hold of a copy of The Blazing World so I’m going to give it a try. I enjoyed the first two books of hers but this one does seem to be on a different plane. Maybe you should give her another try. I’d be interested to hear your take on one of her novels …

  2. I read What I Loved some years ago and thought it was brilliant. How wonderful to hear Hustvedt speak in person. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on her latest – it sounds intriguing.

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