A Plea For Eros, by Siri Hustvedt

From textual analysis to the migraines brought on by marriage
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A Plea for Eros gathers a dozen essays that the novelist Siri Hustvedt has published over the past decade. Most striking is the sustained freshness and warmth that emanates from the author's happiness in dipping into what was clearly a well-loved childhood. Hustvedt grew up in the Midwestern town of Northfield, Minnesota, which she refashioned into the "Webster" of her second novel, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl.

Hustvedt's debut novel, The Blindfold, showed the respectful imprint of her husband Paul Auster's early, spare style. It is set in proximity to Hustvedt's own emotionally thirsty life as a young woman at Columbia University. She isn't shy of percolating her experience into fiction, while describing writing fiction as "like remembering what never happened".

The second impression is that these essays are not memoirs. Even the more academic pieces lean upon buttresses of personal history, but only to give clearer form to the themes that evolve through Hustvedt's work. A list of these would include ways of seeing and understanding, the divided personality and the fringes of madness, the fluid manifestations of sexuality, the dialogue between fiction and memory - and the burning need to write.

Essays on The Great Gatsby and The Bostonians have the dogged quality of close textual argument; one on Dickens reminds us that the author was Hustvedt's doctoral subject. Another, "Franklin Pangborn: an Apologia", is "a rambling but sincerely felt tribute" to an uptight minor actor. The remaining eight pieces thrive on the artless intimacy of her prose, reflecting on corsets and cross-dressing, family sojourns in Norway, and migraines brought on by marriage.

The final piece, "Extracts from a Story of the Wounded Self", binds formative experiences into a manifesto for her writing. "I remain attached to order, to moral thresholds, to all the forms that keep chaos at bay," she says. That one sentence underlines her affinity to Henry James, and reverberates for those who enjoyed her magnificent third novel, What I Loved, with its complex corrosion of family bonds.

In "Yonder", Hustvedt describes her father's archiving of Norwegian-American heritage as "the recovery of a place through the cataloging of its particularity". Her response, embracing the duty and affliction of a writer, is to ask, "Is the writing self an answer to the wounded self?". If so, rarely have such wounds been so engagingly, and thoughtfully, articulated.