“I have always loved libraries – the quiet, the smell, the expectation of imminent discovery. In the next book I will find it – some unspeakable pleasure or startling revelation or extraordinary nuance I had never felt or thought of before.”
I have a great admiration for Siri Hustvedt. A couple of years back I munched my way through as many of her books as I could get my hands on; not all of them, but a big chunk. And it was delicious. Hustvedt is, I think, the embodiment of so many admirable qualities: she is warm, humane, she is fiercely intelligent, thoughtful, inquisitive. She is the writer I wish I could be when I’m not wishing I was Tove Jansson or Helen DeWitt or any of those other writers I so hugely admire in lieu of actually writing myself. I am a fan, in short. A huge one.
Thankfully I haven’t quite burned through all of her books yet, and was pleased to discover I still had this small collection of essays sitting on my shelf. Hustvedt is as good, if not better, an essayist as she is a novelist (better, I think) and it’s always a pleasure to encounter her ruminations on the page. I’ve previously read Living, Thinking, Looking and found it challenging and enlightening in equal measure. I’m pleased to say A Plea for Eros is definitely more on the side of enlightening, and consequently it was a complete pleasure to read. Like a perfect piece of chocolate: it is complex, pleasurable, varied and it lingers on the palate afterwards. A most satisfying treat.
But I’m getting carried away. A Plea for Eros is a short collection of essays loosely centred around the concept of pleasure or passion or, rather, things Hustvedt herself is passionate about. In it she explores her love of reading (I am sure I have not read a description which so perfectly matches my own reading motivations as the one above), her love of Dickens, her love of her husband, her love of love and passion, her love of the mind – in particular the strangeness and complexity of the mind – her love of New York City, her love of her family. Hustvedt is a fascinating feminist, the kind I would like to be, in that she admits both the necessity of female equality, the rights of women to have agency over their own bodies and minds and economic opportunity, but also the real complexities of passion and desire, the muddy waters that sexual interaction, sexual desire and human interaction stumbles within. I find this beautifully put in the following anecdote which prefaces the essay ‘A Plea for Eros’:
“A few years ago a friend of mine gave a lecture at Berkeley on the femme fatale, a subject he has been thinking about for years. When I met him, he was a graduate student at Colombia University, but now he is a full-fledged philosopher, and when it is finished, his book will be published by Gallimard in France and Harvard University Press in America. He is Belgian, but lives in Paris, a detail significant to the story, because he comes from another rhetorical tradition – a French one. When he finished speaking, he took questions, including a hostile one from a woman who demanded to know what he thought of the Antioch Ruling – a law enacted at Antioch College, which essentially made every stage of a sexual encounter on campus legal only by verbal consent. My friend paused, smiled, and replied “It’s wonderful. I love it. Just think of the erotic possibilities: ‘May I touch your right breast? May I though your left breast?'” The woman had nothing to say.”
And I think it is this intelligent nuance which spans her whole oeuvre: she does not omit the complexities, the messiness, the strangeness of real life for an idealised version of how things should be. Human beings are messy, foolish, blundering. Of course it goes without saying that imbalances of power, exploited, result in terrible abuses on the less powerful party and such power imbalances should be limited as much as possible so that people can come to each other in partnership and equality, fully consenting and explore their strange complex natures in a way which enables their creative, desiring minds to fully express themselves. However, that might be.
I found Hustvedt’s essays on desire – A Plea for Eros – and the feminine – Eight Days in a Corset – fascinating, challenging and enlightening, but I think it is her essays on fiction – specifically focusing on The Great Gatsby, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and Henry James’s The Bostonians – which are the most powerful in the book. I am always blown away by writers who have the ability to see and explore the underlying themes which bubble beneath the surface of a work of fiction. It is more than just an exploration of the book, it is a deep exploration into the matters which occupied the mind of the writer themselves often unbeknownst to them, and how these are revealed through the work. Here Hustvedt has a huge advantage, as her own preoccupations include the life of the mind, neurology and psychotherapy – she is an avid explorer of Freud, of Jung, of the strange space between conscious and unconscious being. Here her own preoccupations really flow through and I wonder, sometimes, if that inability to let go of the idea which niggles at the edges of the mind is what makes a writer, pushes a person to explore, to elucidate, to try to unravel the knot that burns in the mind at night. In short, I wonder if that’s what makes a writer (and perhaps why I am not, to my eternal disappointment). I think Hustvedt wonders that too, and I think she is closer but also still worrying the knot. Answers, I think, are less important to the writer than the knot itself.
I appreciate, here, that I have said barely anything about the collection itself, that I have failed to explore its themes or challenge its concepts. Frankly I don’t care about that. This is a fascinating book, full of messy human life, sharp intellectualism, mistakes, kindness and non-judgement. I feel that Hustvedt could write an essay about the shopping list and make it somehow a microcosm of beautiful human existence. It is a lovely book, much easier going than Living, Thinking, Looking, and I enjoyed it immensely. I’m aware I have not been reasoned nor tempered in my thoughts. You’ll have to forgive me that, just this once.