Siri Hustvedt, A Plea For Eros (2006)

I was rather surprised of the interest for this book: did anyone think it was an erotic novel? (And be honest) I’m not sure Siri Hustvedt would ever write anything graphic: to me she is the epitome of New York intellectual chic. All her novels (The Blindfold and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl in the 1990s, and What I loved in 2003) had sensual aspects, but they are mostly cerebral and symbolic (but less so than her husband Paul Auster’s). I love following her novels because until now I loved each new one more than the last (I didn’t read the recent Sorrow of an American), and I see her maturing into a very caring, moving writer. Also, I feel (but my memory is blurry so I may be mistaken) that she kept her distance with reality in her early novels, ant that she now tackles it more and more.

Deep down, I suspect I take a special interest because she is so elegant (isn’t that just about the most unreasonable reason to choose a book? Wait, I remember Stefanie once said she loved Jodie Picoult because of her hair…)

A Plea for Eros is a collection of previously published essays, and so a mix and match without real common thread: personal essays on Hustvedt’s childhood as a loner in Minnesota, in a Norwegian, Lutheran community, on her experience wearing a corset for a movie, her experience trying male clothes and feeling different. Other essays are very literary: on Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, on Dickens (she wrote her thesis on him) and on Henry James. I must confess some pages were clearly out of my league, but it really made me want to read some more Dickens (all I read was Oliver Twist because up to last year I was so afraid of British classics…)

I liked her essays because I basically like her, isn’t it what personal essays are all about? I can relate to her exaltation about NewYork, but I wasn’t so much interested in her childhood memories as in her opinions on writing and reading as a writer:

I spent six years writing a book in which the narrator is a seventy-year-old man named Leo Hertzberg. When I began the novel, I felt some anxiety about embodying a man and speaking in a male voice. After a short time, that nervousness fell away, but it became clear to me that I was doing something different, that this speaker lived inside himself in a different from me, and yet to be him, I was drawing on a masculine part of myself. (in Being a man)

When I write a book, I am also listening. I hear the characters talk as if they were outside me rather than inside me. In one book, I heard a young woman who played at being a man; in another, I heard a man. In my dreams, I find myself pulled between the two sexes, wondering which one I am. Not knowing bothers me, but when I write, that same ambivalence becomes my liberation, and I am free to inhabit both men and women and to tell their stories. (in Being a man)

Where does the need to write come from? What is it? It is a need, not a choice. It’s a giving way and a giving up. I remember finding a reference to hypergraphia in a book on the nervous system. The obsessive need to write for hours and hours every day, the author said, was sometimes a symptom of epilepsy […].
I am afraid of writing, too, because when I write I am always moving toward the unarticulated, the dangerous, the place where the walls don’t hold. I don’t know what’s there, but I am pulled toward it. Is the wounded self the writing self? Is the writing self an answer to the wounded self? Perhaps that is more accurate. The wound is static, a given. The writing self is multiple and elastic, and it circles the wound. Over time, I have become more aware of the fact that I must try not to cover that speechless, hurt core, that I must fight my dread of the mess and violence that are also there. I have to write the fear. The writing self is restless and searching, and it listens for voices. Where do they come from, these chatterers who talk to me before I fall asleep? My characters. I am making them and not making them, like people in my dreams. (Extracts from a story of the wounded self)


5 thoughts on “Siri Hustvedt, A Plea For Eros (2006)

  1. I relate to the idea of writing the fear. Every time I sit down to write my novel, it’s like stepping off the abyss.

    I have just finished Sorrows of an American. As you predicted, it is different, but it is wonderful and elegant and engaging, as always.

  2. I’ve never read her, but I like the sound of her work very much. I always feel a little embarrassed when I hear a writer talking about their writing in such raw terms, particularly when they mention how they “need” to write — it seems to expose something very private. But then I suppose that is what it means to write fiction, to reach for things that are private and difficult.

  3. You have a good memory, dredging up my comment about Jodi Picoult! 🙂

    I have been interested in reading Siri Hustvedt for some time but just haven’t gotten around to it. I think your post has gotten me to the tipping point and I am going to make an effort to read one of her books this year especially since she grew up in Minnesota (I had no idea!) What would you recommend?

  4. Charlotte, you made me want to start The Sorrows of an American right away! What’s nice when you follow a writer’s work is that you always look forward to the next one… but then I have quite high expectations!

    BLily, I was rather surprised of the intimate tone of some essays, because I thought Hustvedt as someone who kept her distance. But it was a pleasant surprise and I liked her candidness.

    Litlove, I would like very much to know what you think of her works. What I Loved is surely a title I can recommend.

    Stefanie, I remember because I never saw her picture before you mentioned it and I also like it! 😉
    If you’re interested in the Minnesota part, I would suggest The enchantment of Lily Dahl. But to me Hustvedt is very much a Newyorker. If you decide to try, I’d love to know what you think of it.

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